On a mission

Hanna Sykulska-Lawrence can truly claim to be ‘reaching for the stars.’ As well as winning the prestigious IET Young Woman Engineer of Year, she has been on a team that helped send a NASA mission to Mars. She is currently at Imperial College London. Not bad for a 27-year-old at the start of her career.

Name: Hanna Sykulska-Lawrence
Age: 27
Job title: Engineer and space scientist

Hannah Sykulska-Lawrence

How would you describe your job?
I say I’m an engineer and a space scientist.

You’ve worked on the NASA Phoenix missions to Mars. What was that like?
It’s been an amazing experience because it’s really hard to get into something like that in the UK. It’s only because my boss used to work for NASA that we’ve been able to work with them.

What was your involvement like?
It breaks down into a couple of things: firstly, the small bits of hardware that we made in our lab - we designed and tested them and then made them for the spacecraft – and, the second thing is that, because we were doing so much testing of the microscopes in preparation for the mission, we were invited over to be engineers during the mission as well. I was called a downlink engineer.

Will you be doing any more work for NASA?
Because the craft has been at the North Pole it’s had no sunlight and had a long, dark winter but there’s a chance they’ll try and wake it up. In that sense, maybe I will. The chances are small but you never know. I’m still analysing the data from the mission so I’m still working for them at the moment.

Are there any other areas – outside of space – that you’re particularly interested in?
A lot of the hardware I’ve developed has been in microtechnolgy, so that’s something I’m quite interested in. I’m also interested in new and upcoming things, like quantum computing.

Engineering hasn’t traditionally been associated with women. Do you think this is changing?
I think so, yes. Looking at the students at Imperial College, the ratios of boys to girls – even from 10 years ago when I was studying – is changing. There’s much more interest now as there’s much more understanding of what it is so they’re not so scared off by stereotypes. There’s a lot of support here.

What made you want to be an engineer?
I’ve always known. When I was born I immediately grabbed for Lego. I’ve always been about creative and logical thinking, so it was just about working out exactly what I wanted to do.

You have won the IET’s prestigious Young Woman Engineer of the Year award. How did that feel?
It was a great honour and a great chance for me to inspire other people. Also, because I’d had a very exciting year the year before, I could tell people all about my work at NASA. It’s great to be able to play that ambassadorial role and tell people about the exciting developments in engineering and all the opportunities. 

What do you like to do outside of work?
Ballroom dancing…I dance with my brother. We did quite well last year but had some time off, so we’re picking it up again. Tennis is my other thing.