Women Adore Tech

Moonshot Career – Seungah Lee

Michael Collins said, “It is human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand. Exploration is not a choice really; it’s an imperative”. Such is the case with Seungah Lee. An astronomy and aerospace engineering student hailing from South Korea, she has completed two Master’s degrees and will soon dive into her PhD studies. Through her university education, Seungah has worked on an impressive list of projects, starting from a near-Earth magnetometer sensor, to a national project such as a Lunar Orbiter project supported by the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), and flight software engineer internship at the French Space Agency (CNES). In our discussion with her, Seungah shares how she chose astronomy and aerospace engineering despite stereotypes surrounding the career choice, as well as her technical journey and projects that encouraged her to pursue a PhD.

Can you describe your educational journey so far?

During my bachelor’s degree, I majored in Astronomy and Space Science. There are several definitions but in order to differentiate between the two in terms of majors, Space Science deals with the solar system or the instrumentation for a space journey. Whereas for astronomy, you can imagine something that is outside the solar system; so, astronomy is the superset. After the bachelor’s degree, I did my first Master’s in South Korea, where I majored in Space Research and specialized in payload development. Now, I’ve finished my second Masters in France, majoring in Aerospace Engineering and specializing in Embedded Systems. I’m currently doing an end-of-study internship at CNES, the French space agency, as part of the flight software team.

How did you choose astronomy and space research? What was your motivation?

I think there were a lot of triggers that pushed me in that direction. But, the first was when I was in elementary school. I had an opportunity to stay in Cambridge University during summer vacation, and at that time, Stephen Hawking was a professor there. As I saw his portrait hanging on the dining room wall, my reaction was ‘OK, that is cool’! I also remember feeling in awe of another scientist, Marie Curie. When I was around 10 years old, my mom had given me Curie’s bibliography to read, and it motivated me to become like her, a pioneer for female researchers. I guess it was that time that I realized I want to become a scientist.

Can you share any memorable experiences while working on any of your research projects?

My first research project during my undergraduate degree is quite special to me. At that time, I had just realized my interest in space instrumentation and approached my professor to ask if I could work in his lab. Though my sudden interest surprised him, he welcomed me, and I was lucky to start working on this new project with him. The project (MICA-S) was about developing a magnetometer that would be installed in South Antarctica in Korean stations to study time-varying magnetic fields in near-Earth space.

After a year and a half, our team finished developing the equipment and we sent it to South Antarctica, and it’s still working very well! Other researchers have received data from the very equipment I developed and they’ve published papers with these measures! It was an extremely proud moment for me, sending our ‘baby’ to the middle of nowhere, and helping other scientists with their research.

How did you decide to go for a Master’s?

I started thinking about a Master’s because I wanted to pursue projects like the MICA-S, and even bigger. And as an incentive to push me in that direction, the lab (where I worked on MICA-S) was going to participate in a Lunar Orbiter Mission from South Korea (KPLO) in order to develop a magnetometer payload (KMAG). This project was a whole new scale – while the magnetometer (MICA-S) detected waves from the near-Earth environment, this new project (KMAG), the lunar orbiter, would go to the moon! I did not want to miss this opportunity, but I also wanted to better my knowledge in payload or space instrumentation, which was the specialization this project required. Hence, in my first Master’s degree, I specialized in this exactly. As I was in charge of the development of the On-Board Computer of the magnetometers payload, I became curious about the architecture of general embedded systems for space applications. For my second Master’s program, I was driven by the revelation to do something more meaningful and technical, try to contribute more to society or the environment. I also wanted to travel outside Korea, learn a new language and meet different people!

Did you ever have any change of mind about space and astronomy during your journey?

There were a few moments I wanted to give up. My first introduction to astronomy was in middle school. My parents were not happy that I wanted to pursue astronomy, because of the stereotypes in Korea surrounding this career. It is believed that scientists are generally poor. The semiconductor industry is a popular choice here, with companies like Samsung or LG guaranteeing well pay. So, I actually gave up astronomy at that time and ended up choosing biology in high school. But before I applied for university, a school senior told me, ‘You are in the classroom for 8-12 hours, but if you don’t focus on what you want to do then you’re just wasting your time’. I don’t know why it triggered me, but it made me think that I can try, whatever the result may be, because that’s what I want to do.

What would you like to tell other women who want to take the same career path as you?

I wish people don’t give up on their career dream only because of money. Media sometimes describe scientists as poor, but we can earn more than enough to survive, and even enough to live well! So please don’t be distracted by popular opinion or materialistic instincts!

My passion for technical and applicative research is why I became interested in satellite or space instrumentation. One of my goals is to keep developing space equipment that helps other scientists study their research”. “So, I hope to be recognized as a researcher, and also helpful to scientists. Through this, I hope to motivate kids, who dream about space, to pursue their dreams

-Seungah Lee

Content Editor: krithika kathiresan
Reviewer: Maanasa Sachidanand
Interviewer: Maanasa Sachidanand

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