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James - Project Scientist

   James Carpenter in a life-sized model of a pod on the International Space Station  James works at the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands, where he is a Project Scientist working as part of a team developing missions to the moon. He is responsible for all of the scientific experiments that these missions will perform and defining the scientific requirements that must be addressed by the engineered systems.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I actually had no idea! I was always interested in Space and liked science at school but didn’t think of this as a job prospect until I was studying for my A-levels and I realised that Brits could get involved.

Who or what inspired you to become a project scientist?

My physics teacher at secondary school was appropriately called Mr Rocket and really made the topic come alive for me.

What does your typical day involve?

During a typical day the alarm will go off around 6.15am and after a run on the beach or a gym session I will get to the office by 9am. My day is made up of lots of tasks including:
• Planning actions for day
• Replying to/sending out e-mails
• Reading and learning about new science results and engineering solutions
• Calculations & modelling
• Making documents or giving talks.
• Meetings with colleagues, industrial partners and scientists
• Meetings with representatives from various international agencies and organisations
I try to finish work at around 5pm so that I can spend my evenings and weekends with my wife and children, though sometimes I have to work much later. There can be lots of travel involved which is sometimes fun but can also be hard work.  

Although there is no practical work involved in this role it is rare that two days will be the same due to the huge diversity of topics that we cover.

What do you love about your job and what would you change?

I love the subject itself; the people I work with; the international feel as we work with people in every country in Europe, as well as Russia and the USA; and the optimism of what we’re trying to do in exploring space and expanding our reach in the solar system.  

If I had the power to change anything it might be to simplify the complexity that comes from having so many international stakeholders. It can be very complicated to properly account for this well when there are so many people involved from so many different countries and backgrounds with different interests and goals. At the same time this diversity and international element is part of what makes the job so rewarding and it is this cooperation that makes what we do possible.  

Did you go to university? Was a degree required for your role?

I studied a physics, space science and technology degree at the University of Leicester before carrying out a PhD at the Space Research Centre there and even staying on for a post doc as an instrument scientist for a mission to Mercury. I also looked at experiments for the International Space Station and lots of other interesting topics.

During my time at Leicester University I also carried out some outreach and education work at the National Space Centre which through which I learned a lot about presenting, communicating and interacting with people. This was a really valuable experience that I benefit from every day.

After 10 years at Leicester I decided to move to the Netherlands and take on my current role with ESA where I have now been for 5 years.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young person who is considering becoming an engineer, what would it be?

Choose to study maths and physics as subjects at school/college and take part in as many relevant extra-curricular activities as you can.

I am a physicist with an engineering bent rather than a true engineer but I’ve observed that the core of what makes some of the best engineers is often started in childhood. It’s the inquisitiveness that leads a child to take things apart to see how they work and to build and construct new things. I’d say don’t be afraid to explore the world around you, take things apart and tinker. But make sure you understand the consequences if you can’t put things back together again.

What do your friends/family think about your job?

I think my parents and friends are all very proud of me (though I’m not sure how many of them actually understand what I do!) A lot of my friends who were on my degree course chose not to go for a career in the space industry, but this was not due to a lack of job opportunities. Rather I think that through studying for a physics or engineering degree you develop some very marketable skills, which can open a lot of doors for, into a large range of job sectors and areas.

Do you have any hobbies that you like to do to relax?

I enjoy going to the gym, playing sport and travelling, though my favourite activities are spending time with my family and friends.  

What are the biggest implications your work will/could have in the future?

At the extreme I guess my work could help open up the possibility of humans one day living and working on the Moon, or elsewhere in the Solar System.  

While this is probably still a long way off, in my lifetime we could start to see the exploitation of space for its assets, either to use on earth or as a way of resourcing future space exploration. I’d personally like to see exploration used to provide tangible benefits to the people of Earth.

What excites you most about science and engineering?

With science, it is the moment of discovery, when you realise that you know something that no-one else knows. It is also that fact that, as you learn more about the way the universe works you can’t help but be amazed by the elegance of it all.

As for engineering, I think it has to be the creative process that solves problems. To start with a problem and create an engineered solution that makes the impossible possible.