Yang Gao and a Life Amongst the Stars

With over twenty years in space research under her belt, Professor Yan Gao talks to her about working on space missions, the future of commercial space flight, and her experience of gender diversity in STEM.
Professor Yang Gao. All photos: Linda Wei.
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Yang Gao and a Life Amongst the Stars

Professor Yang Gao has had the kind of career that is inspirational to any young girl wanting to go into science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Currently the Professor of Space AutonomousSystems at Surrey Space Centre, her research has led her to collaborate with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), China NationalSpace Agency (CNSA) and some of the world’s top universities and companies.Also heading up STAR LAB (Space Technology for Autonomous and Robotic systems Laboratory), she now works to create robotics and autonomous systems that can be used in space. Her work has led to numerous awards and accolades including a Contribution to Science award from the Mulan Foundation Network – an organisation dedicated to recognising the achievements of Chinese women.

Yang is very softly spoken despite her illustrious career and she has a wonderful tendency to open up completely about the multitude of thoughts and experiences she’s had. When we speak to her, she’s in her lab in the University of Surrey, and she shares with us her earliest forays into STEM. 

“I think as a child, I was always very into engineering,” she reminisces. “I'm quite a hands-on person, I like to make stuff. I'm curious about things that are machine based. I guess the fact that my dad is an engineer [helped]…but I think I had this sort of family environment that always provided me the opportunity to see things in engineering, to appreciate how important engineering and technology is to our lives. [To see] the impact it is making to improve the quality of the lives of ordinary people.”

After this early inspiration, Yang went on to obtain a degree in engineering from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore in the late 1990s before moving into AI Robotics research, leading her to be awarded the First Prize of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Asia-Pacific Postgraduate Paper Contest in 2002.

So much has been discussed regarding AI today, given that virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant are now integrated into the lives of so many. With this in mind, it’s fascinating to wonder what it was like for Yang to be working in the field twenty years ago, when computing systems were nowhere near as advanced as they are today.

“If you think about it at that time,” she recounts, “[There were] limitations on computers working in real time operations, not like today. I mean, today it's very different. Phones are running extremely powerful algorithms but ten years ago that was not the case.

I was very much encouraged by my senior colleagues and other industrial sectors, where I saw this opportunity where projects from the European Space Agency looked at the introduction of AI. It was exciting because they wanted someone who didn't necessarily come from the space background… they wanted them to come from an AI robotics background.”

Since then, she hasn’t looked back, continuing to work in this fast growing sector. Yet she understands the levels of personal sacrifice needed to be able to work and succeed in her field. Moving to the UK was but one of the decisions she made; another was also grappling with her place in a field that is known for being an overwhelmingly male domain. 

“It still remains, as you can imagine, a very male dominant sector,” she affirms. “As a researcher, as an academic, I sort of took a journey which… I think is always challenging. I remember something said by one of my former senior colleagues who was also a female scientist. She used to tell me she felt that, as a female scientist in the technological field, we have to be better in order to be equal. I think that's probably true in many other domains… 

I know in some scientific areas you could have a much better balance in terms of gender. You know, pure science, both with engineering and technology, is obviously extremely unbalanced. Because a lot of prejudice towards unfortunate women, in terms of our instincts, engineering technology, hands on stuff, they think we don't know how to do anything, [or that] we have lesser capabilities. I pick this up from communicating with schools, teachers and children in the UK in particular; I’ve come to know that a lot of girls who are given the kind of direction or at least some kind of supervision or guidance to be able to look into STEM more.

I sometimes give talks to schools, and sometimes girls schools, and I've been told that they look at their own teachers and they don't see a lot of female teachers in science and STEM subjects. There are not a lot of examples. Sometimes there’s a family influence as well, unless you have a father like myself and who encouraged me… but otherwise, they are not even given the thought that they can pursue a very interesting career and life in STEM related areas. I know the lot of them are [more] encouraged to go into the social sciences… I think is a good message to say that you should open yourself to all possibilities. I mean, take space, as example. There are so many emerging topics in space, like space law, space architecture, all that can also involve other genders, not just men.”

With that in mind: space. The final frontier. Even the most unenchanted by science fiction have at some point appreciated the beauty and magic of what might be out there beyond our world. What is it really like to work in such afield?

“I do not know how many people know this, but Surrey University has a very long heritage in space engineering education research,” she mentions. “I think we have over 42 or 43 years of space research heritage already. We were actually the first university worldwide who has ever successfully viewed, launched and operated a spacecraft. When people say space people think of NASA, space agencies, those big players. We have demonstrated [since] the 1970s that space does not have to be a playground only for the big space agencies or government organisations.

Space agencies are great, no, don't get me wrong. But there are also a lot of restrictions… certain things you can or can't do. With a university or research centre you really have relatively more freedom to explore new knowledge, to be involved in the educational side of things as well, not just research… you're able to pass all that to the next generation. I like that kind of academic freedom.”

She’s never been to space, but she tells us about missions where software she’s worked on has been used to control spacecraft and machinery. There’s a very sincere level of enthusiasm when Yang speaks about the impact of her work, happy to know that she and her colleagues are helping the astronauts hundreds of kilometres above their homes keep safe and do their jobs. While she laments just a little that her eyesight means she probably isn’t a good candidate to be an astronaut, she also smiles when thinking of the possibilities for her researchers to make it up there into the great beyond, especially as more universities are starting to launch their own missions.

“Of course, it's very hard work, but I always encourage people to do it,” she says.  “Who knows, maybe one day one of our research girls will become an astronaut, maybe on the European Space Agency programme? I know there’s a lot of interest. Maybe I'm a bit too old for that now!”

It’s when she starts to talk about commercial space flight – as seen through ventures such as SpaceX – that things get even more interesting. She tells us that while these missions have been great to get the public excited about going up into space, these have been mostly based on bespoke design systems, meaning that there’s still quite a gap between what we see on these missions and the development of systems for space travel that can be used repeatedly and reliably for an affordable price by the general public.

Yang explains that any prospective spacecraft for commercial flight would need to be serviced. Much like we see with the aeroplanes, trains and other forms of public transport we use. However, most of the spacecraft that get used currently just get disposed of, or are retired and aren’t used again. To slowly make the move to get space travel commercial, more research needs to be going into how these spacecrafts can either be maintained or recycled.

“You can use AI for space debris removal and how you deal with that so they don't become too much of a hazard for future space assets,” she explains. “There are a lot of resources in space that we can utilise [out there] or you [can] bring them back… I'm a believer in space.

Commercialise the show, I think that is the future. Because that's how you sustain space activities. Rather than just rely on government funding and make those big science missions which can take years, if not decades, for them to actually get developed and fly… that's too long, really. What you need is more rapid access to space. To do that, I'm afraid you have to bring in private funding.” 

While the future of space research and travel seems bright, we wonder what this means for the future of the people who work in the engineering and technological field - particularly younger generations who might want to know if the field of space research has space for them. As an East Asian female that has succeeded in her field, one cannot help but wonder how different things were for her when she started out, as opposed to now. 

“I was kind of deliberately not trying to consider gender or [consider]myself as a female scientist, when I was developing my career,” she muses. “I always tried to filter out any noise… I was deliberately very active in terms of volunteering myself into various mentoring programmes, for example, the Mulan Foundation or the United Nations Women’s Programme, because I was extremely aware at that time while I was developing my career, that equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) wasn't great.

It is only in recent years, maybe the past three to five years, this has become something, particularly in the UK, where I was allowed to talk about EDI. But by this time, I'm already a senior staff [member]! So I kind of missed[out] during my development. I had to navigate through a lot of things and obstacles myself.

I am very aware that I need to do more for minority groups, whether it's because of ethnic background… or gender, because it's just so incredibly important that [people] feel there are people here who are willing to voice out for them, because otherwise it's extremely hard for them to feel empowered just by themselves. 

I’ve been through that myself. I’ve had my ups and downs. I’m very grateful that I had my family very much support me. They never gave me the impression that because I'm female, so I should be less: “No no, you should just do whatever you think you are interested in.”

In my view, the key message we want to say is: “Look, all we believe inhere are principles of equality, diversity and inclusion…” I think we should feel very proud with our heritage. It's so rich, we should feel very proud [of]our backgrounds… we should feel proud the way our culture can enable us to be extremely open minded and kind to others. We should feel extremely capable of championing the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion. I think we should feel extremely, confident to do that, to lead that. To speak out and to lead with that voice.”

With that, we leave the professor to go back to her incredibly busy schedule. Given both her journey and her work, we have no doubt whatever she does will keep her at the frontier of both space and the future of her field.

Professor Yang Gao can be found at the University of Surrey.
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