NASA scientist hopes to inspire other young girls to reach for stars

Dr Carly Howett on the top deck of the radio telescope Arecibo, which was used for astronomical research projects

Dr Carly Howett on the top deck of the radio telescope Arecibo, which was used for astronomical research projects and recently collapsed. - Credit: Dr Carly Howett

A scientist for NASA with links to Ipswich has told of her remarkable journey from a schoolgirl at the local comprehensive to working on missions launched into outer space. 

Dr Carly Howett, 42, is an Essex native but feels a strong connection to Ipswich.  

“My mum and stepdad relocated to Ipswich when I was eighteen,” she explains. “So, this was the home I came back to after university."

Dr Howett is now the instrument scientist on NASA’s Lucy mission, which will send a spacecraft probe to Jupiter’s asteroids and, hopefully, uncover important clues about how the solar system came to be. 

But she never imagined this was how her life would turn out. 

“I grew up the daughter of an electrician, my mother was a stay-at-home mum in Braintree. I went to the local comprehensive school. When I went to the career counsellor, this wasn’t the job they were suggesting for me. 

“The idea that you could have a career in flying a spacecraft was completely out of reach.” 

Dr. Carly Howett at NASA, in front of the Lucy Mission rocket

Dr. Carly Howett at NASA, in front of the Lucy Mission rocket - Credit: Dr Carly Howett

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She studied physics at the University of Essex.  

“But I knew I wanted to focus on space science. So, I did a master’s, and the only reason I could afford it was because someone crashed my car.

"They wrote it off and I got a big cheque, and that paid my tuition fees at University College London.” 

From there, she applied to study for a PhD she never thought she’d get, and before she knew it, was dividing her time between Oxford University and NASA’s research lab in California. 

“There were lots of little accidents that all happened to go together,” she says. 

Now, she is passionate about encouraging young women like her that, literally, the sky is the limit. 

Dr Carly Howett during her time in Hawaii, when she was operating the infrared telescope (ITRF)

Dr Carly Howett during her time in Hawaii, when she was operating the infrared telescope (ITRF) - Credit: Dr Carly Howett

Science is still “male-dominated,” she says, explaining how, as young people advance from A-level to university to post-graduate study, the gender gap increases. 

“At every step, we lose women. I think there are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is not being able to see yourself in a role. 

“I didn’t know you could work in space science. The idea that you could have a career in flying a spacecraft was completely out of reach.” 

But making sure there are visible role models for girls is becoming increasingly talked about. 

Dr Carly Howett on the day NASA's New Horizons mission, which she is also a part of, encountered Pluto

Dr Carly Howett on the day NASA's New Horizons mission, which she is also a part of, encountered Pluto - Credit: Dr Carly Howett

“There are women in these roles standing up and saying, hey, I do science and I’m a woman, I'm a minority in other ways."

She cited the work of Maggie Aderin-Pocock of BBC's The Sky at Night as an example of a hugely successful black, female scientist in the public eye.

“I think it’s really great to improve visibility in our community. It's really important that we keep talking to our girls, and say, if science is something you’re interested in, don’t let the fact that you’re female stop you.” 

Dr Howett will be speaking at the University of Suffolk about NASA’s ‘Lucy’ mission on January 29 at 3.15pm.