This International Day of Women and Girls in Science we celebrate the role of women and girls in science, not only as beneficiaries, but also as agents of change. We acknowledge this important day by profiling women who have pursued careers in science, to inspire Victoria’s future female scientists.
Dr Gail Iles is making the impossible, possible. Her work will ensure that people can travel to the Moon and Mars – and stay there.
She has always wanted to be an astronaut herself. She doesn’t even remember a time when she didn’t want to be one. While she hasn’t been to space (yet!), she has trained many astronauts and sent many experiments into space on rockets.
Gail was drawn to physics because she wanted to delve deep into the miniscule atomic level of matter, while also studying gigantic things such as the entire Cosmos. She loves science because scientists don’t have all the answers, but they are certainly searching for them.
“There is an element of the unknown in everything we do” she says. “There’s no right or wrong, just new.”
Juggling studies, part-time jobs and raising two small children alone, Gail completed a Bachelor of Sciences with The Open University from home. It was the most challenging time in her career so far, having to work and look after her children, and then dragging out her textbooks at the end of the day to study late into the night.
But she completed the degree and the rest is history. She began her scientific career with the European Space Agency in France, where she conducted experiments on board the “vomit comet” – a plane that enables people to feel weightless (i.e. zero gravity) by making roller-coaster-like manoeuvres in the air. From there she became an astronaut instructor at the European Astronaut Centre, training International Space Station (ISS) Expedition crew members how to operate equipment in the Columbus module of the ISS.
Now, Gail works in Australia at RMIT University, collaborating with people across the globe. NASA scientists have long been looking for water on Mars, and Gail is working with them to create a device that can extract water from minerals on Mars. Our bodies depend on water to survive, but it expensive to ship water (or any additional weight) in a rocket; when the Mars Curiosity Rover was launched, it cost around 2.78 million USD per kilogram!
If humans are going to get to Mars, they are going to need a source of water. Gail’s team simulated the rock and dust layer that covers Mars and experimented with how they could extract water. They are now designing a water filter made of porous Martian rock minerals. Due to the arid nature of Mars, this work is also relevant to getting water in the dry, desert regions of Earth – just like the Australia outback.
One day, Gail hopes that she will venture out into space herself. She has forged a career by looking at the CVs of astronauts and following in their footsteps, and encourages others to follow their role models.
“Space has a power to inspire - it’s that fascination that gets everybody” she says.
Perhaps it has even got you. You could be among the first women to walk on the Moon – and even Mars.
You can discover more stories about women who have pursued careers in science to make a real difference.
We invite you to read and share the stories, and celebrate women in science to inspire our future female scientists pursue their passion and make waves across industries.Dr Gillian Sparkes AM Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability