Mars mission took scientist to new level of discovery

The Oxford Times: Hanna Sykulska-Lawrence in her lab at Oxford University. Picture: OX65222 Andrew Walmsley Buy this photo » Hanna Sykulska-Lawrence in her lab at Oxford University. Picture: OX65222 Andrew Walmsley

DESIGNING the instruments that discovered water on Mars is the high-point of engineer Hanna Sykulska-Lawrence’s career so far.

And now the 31-year-old is working on equipment that will be used on future missions to Venus.

The Marston-based mother-of-two was part of a team of scientists who spent eight months living and working in NASA’s mission control centre in the Arizona desert.

She was the only female engineer and youngest in the British group of scientists who were there to analyse data sent back from the unmanned Phoenix spacecraft, which landed on Mars in 2008.

The successful exploration was the result of years of graft to refine the instruments to the point where they could be used to remotely gather soil and ice samples from the planet’s surface.

Mrs Sykulska-Lawrence, based in Oxford University’s physics department, said: “You can’t take a bench-top equipment, such as a microscope, and shove it on Mars and expect it to work.

“There were all sorts of challenges trying to make it work 150 million miles away on a different planet.

“During the mission, we lived in mission control in Arizona and didn’t interact with anyone outside for months.

“We were completely isolated from families and friends and were living on Martian time, because a day there is 39 minutes longer than an Earth one.”

She took one week’s break half-way through – popping back to the UK to marry psychologist Pete Lawrence.

She added: “I had a week off for the wedding then went straight back, so the first three months of our marriage were spent with me living in this Martian bubble in the desert.”

It was obvious from a young age that she was going to become an engineer, as she was always taking toys apart to try to work out how they worked.

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After completing a four-year degree in engineering and material science at St Catherine’s in Oxford, she contacted physicist Dr Tom Pike at the engineering department at Imperial College, London.

She said: “He had worked for NASA on previous Mars missions but had come back to the UK, bringing projects with him.

“I called him and said, ‘I want to be like you, how do I do that?’ “I was looking for career guidance but he offered me a PhD research post, which was perfect and meant I got involved in the Phoenix mission.”

After five years, she came back to Oxford to study for a doctorate.

She was nominated for an engineering prize in last year’s First Women Awards, run by the CBI, won the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s young woman engineer of the year award five years ago and was made a Royal Society Research Fellow in 2011.

She combines work with looking after Bertie, three, and 10-month-old Betty, and giving talks to encourage others to take up engineering as a career.

She explained: “Engineering is misunderstood as a profession.

“There are a lot of stereotypes that cloud it and it’s not pursued by school kids because they think of men in overalls working under cars.”

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