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Dr Beth Jens: An inspiring space career

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8 March 2021

On 8 March 2021, we are recognising International Women’s Day.

We are committed to growing a diverse space sector to help bridge the gender gap for greater equality across the industry. The inspire pillar of our strategy is a key way for us to achieve this. It focuses on encouraging our next generation to consider space careers for the future.

Dr Elizabeth Jens is a great example of a successful and inspiring Australian woman, who landed her dream position with NASA as a Propulsion and Systems Engineer. Our emerging space industry is now starting to generate more jobs like this right here in Australia.

Beth hopes her career takes her off planet Earth. But for now, she is thoroughly enjoying her role at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“I have always dreamed of being an astronaut,” says Beth.

“But I would be more than happy spending my career helping humankind to explore our solar system in my current capacity.”

At JPL, she’s been responsible for delivering hardware for the Perseverance rover (aka Mars 2020). The gas Dust Removal Tool will clear dust from the surface of samples so that science instruments can analyse them.

“I cannot wait to see it used on the surface of Mars,” says Beth.

When she’s not working on Mars 2020, she’s focussing on propulsion. This has included development of a small in-space propulsion system to enable interplanetary SmallSats. More recently, she’s been working on the Mars Ascent Vehicle. This is the rocket that is proposed to launch samples from the surface of Mars to bring them back to Earth.

As a child, Beth went with her family to hear a talk by Apollo astronaut, Charlie Duke.

“I left wanting to be an astronaut and kept thinking: ‘why not me? If I work hard and stay healthy, why could I not be that person standing on the moon one day?’”

At high school, she loved physics and wanted to continue this study at university. She opted for a combined Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering (Hons) and BSc in Physics at the University of Melbourne.

“I soon discovered that I had more of an affinity for engineering than I did for physics,” says Beth.

After graduating from the University of Melbourne, Beth received a Master’s degree and PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University. She says the skills she took from her studies help her in her role at work.

“I often find myself applying knowledge from fluid mechanics classes and have my university textbooks at my desk,” says Beth.

There’s no such thing as a regular work day for Beth and she loves the variety. Some days are spent working with technicians and hardware, writing or executing operating procedures or build instructions. Other days she is testing or reviewing data. There is also a lot of time spent running numbers, performing analysis, communicating results or brainstorming and working on proposals.

The establishment of the Australian Space Agency was very exciting for Beth.

“When I was finishing my undergraduate study, it was difficult to find domestic opportunities in the space sector or get advice on this career path,” she says.

“I’m really happy that students now will have a much easier time navigating this. As an Australian working overseas, I also really like the fact that there is now a clear point of contact for us to reach out to with questions or ideas for collaboration.”

In the early days of first-time motherhood, Beth is enjoying a brief work hiatus to be with her baby boy.

“I will have to balance my time with him with my work commitments but every working parent has to navigate this,” says Beth.

“I just hope that I can foster within him a love of learning and an appreciation for our beautiful planet.”

Beth’s career highlights

  • Delivering hardware for the Perseverance rover in 2019
  • Receiving the Fulbright Scholarship in Science and Engineering and a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship
  • Becoming a JPL Graduate Fellow and an Amelia Earhart Fellow
  • Receiving a PhD from Stanford
  • Being listed by Engineers Australia as one of the most innovative engineers for 2017
  • Becoming a Patron of Mateship
  • Named as a Vogue Gamechanger in 2018 and writing an essay for Vogue Australia in 2018

Beth’s tips for a career in space

  • Attend conferences and participate in committees to meet other researchers and professionals in your field
  • If you are passionate about a career in this field, don’t be daunted about pursuing it
  • Reach out to domestic groups and organisations to get a feel for the community and current opportunities

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