So, why did you decide to take a gap year?
Because I wanted to travel - I applied for university, made sure I got my place, and then deferred for a year. So I had the assurance of knowing I had something to come back to, but I bought myself a year to work abroad.
Where did you go, what did you do?
I went to Italy, not knowing a word of Italian. I remember sitting in a taxi, trying to get the taxi driver to teach me ‘good afternoon’. I worked for 11 months as an au pair and then spent a month travelling around. Basically, I was based in Italy and just used the opportunity to travel around as much as I could.
Would you recommend a gap year between college and university?
Totally, totally, totally - I enjoyed working in my gap year in one place because I think that kind of immersion gives you a real insight into living in another country in a way that just travelling doesn’t. You’ve got to live there, you’ve got to live the system and work the system. It’s also a fantastic way to discover your own independence and it equips you very well for university. I don’t think it phases you in any way afterwards, and actually when I came back, I just wanted to travel again. In the second year of my degree, I went traveling.
So you did a year abroad?
Yes, it was part of the ERASMUS scheme. I went to uni at Leeds University, and although I did my first year at Leeds, I did my second year in a town called Tampere in Finland, before coming back to Leeds for my third year. It was actually by nature of going to university in Finland that I was able to make an informed choice about my course because of the way the university is run in Finland is completely different, so you are able to duck in and duck out of subject areas. It is so much more flexible, much more – you can drill down into the detail of subjects in a way I had never been able to do had I just stayed in the UK education system.
How did you find studying for your PhD at Cambridge differed to Leeds in terms of university style?
Incredibly different. It was very privileged. I felt enormously lucky every single day to be in that environment, it was absolutely awe-inspiring. My lab was just round the corner from where DNA was discovered, and I lived just round the corner from Stephen Hawking. I used to pass him on the bridge quite often. I think that I had the best of both worlds because I had all of the privileges of studying at Cambridge: I had access to world-class facilities, the finest minds in the country etc, etc. But as I went there as a postgraduate student, I went to a postgraduate college and the average student at a postgraduate college was much more a representative of any cross-section of society than those you would find in some of the very traditional undergraduate colleges. And that suited me well.
What made you want to go on and do a PhD?
It was the subject matter really, I enjoyed the discovery element of science, and like with most things, there was a bit of serendipity along the way. In my final year of Leeds, I went to a conference where there was one talk by a German researcher that I found really interesting. So, in the bar afterwards I got chatting to him and said ‘Oooh, you know, that was really interesting, bla bla bla’ and a few minutes later, Professor Lindsay Greer walked round the corner. The German researcher spotted him and said, ‘Ah! This is my supervisor!’ and I was still chatting away. Then Professor Lindsay Greer started to say, ‘you should come down to Cambridge, we should meet, and you should come visit my lab.’ And at that point, I was thinking, ‘I should probably put down my beer, he is really serious - time to start listening, Alice.’ It literally happened like that. I felt very lucky that I managed to make those kind of personal connections. I think that that’s quite important, otherwise you don’t quite know what you’re going into with a PhD. The fact that my research was sponsored by a metallurgical company was helpful too. I spent quite a lot of my time up in great big heatproof suits and steel-capped boots in a metal works, pouring molten aluminium around and things like that. The intense study in the lab was quite a handful but quite a lot of people were interested in the outcome of my research, which isn’t always the case with PhDs as they can be a little abstract.
Why did you choose to work for the UK Space Agency?
The international aspect is a real appeal. That’s not just because you get to travel the world – nowadays, I travel so much that it can be quite wearying - but because there’s something very inspiring about working with international corporations. Partly the reason the nature of the job is so international is because of that point around ‘no one owns space, we all have to share it, we all have to use it together and we all have to work together.’ Space missions are typically very expensive, so it makes sense to share the costs of missions. But I do find it very inspiring, very heartening, when you see these huge international collaborations working together. One of ones that I’ve worked on, not in this job but in a previous job was a collaboration of space agencies to make observation data free after any natural disaster. I found that quite an inspiring set-up because you had Russia, US, China, Japan, India, you name it, all these different countries around a table who in ordinary circumstances have quite a lot of political differences, but space programmes can quite often transcend those political differences and people tend to work together and co-operate very well.
You obviously have a lot of contact with international space agencies, how do you find that genders are represented across different space programmes in different countries?
In truth, the sector is very male-dominated, and I think that’s true for most countries - I can’t recall a country where that balance is reversed. I did have a fantastic meeting in Columbia once where there was about forty different government departments and agencies in the room, almost all male, apart from this absolutely rocking female. It was hilarious - in theory it was a meeting amongst equals, but it was so clear that this woman was the woman in charge of everything going on. I had been so warned about this woman, the head, that she terrified everybody, and she was absolutely brilliant. By the end of the day, she gave me a big hug and said, ‘We girls must stick together.’ It was just a brilliant moment and all the guys were standing back, saying, ‘how on earth did that happen?!’, looking at me and the woman we’d all been terrified of. It was a real moment for the sisterhood.
What challenges have you faced throughout your professional career?
Certainly at the beginning of my career, so late twenties, it was a challenge of being taken seriously in a very male-dominated world. And if you are also young that’s quite difficult. The way in which you get around this is just by proving your worth and, in truth, it’s one of the nicer things about getting older; people look at you and think, ‘yeah, she’s been around the block, she probably knows a thing or two, it’s fine,’ whereas, from a gender point of view, if you’re a woman in a very male-dominated career path and you are young, then it can be quite challenging. I’d say probably the other challenge was coming back to the office after I had a five-and-a-half yearlong career break when I had my three kids, and being able to work part-time in a really stretching, demanding job. And it’s a challenge I love and I hope that this is something that’s going to get easier. I also think that this is something that is always described as a gender issue, but I don’t think it is a gender issue. It should just be about the way we work in general in society and there’s no reason why we should have to carve up our jobs into nine-to-five, five days-a-week slots with all the flexible working opportunities we can do now. I talk to male friends who may not have kids or partners, but they want to spend a day a week playing cricket, so why shouldn’t they be able to work part-time and flexibly as well? It’s always pushed as a gender issue and as a working-mum issue, but actually I hope we get over that and I hope we get to a point where all of society benefits from being able have flexible working arrangements.
What women personally inspire you?
It’s not a very intellectual answer, but there was a woman I was once on a night train in France and, I don’t know if you travel on night trains very much, but there is a bit of a protocol that you go in and you just keep quiet because everyone’s in their couchettes, tucked-up for a night’s sleep. When we pulled into Paris at half past six in the morning, this lady got down from the top bunk and she must have been at least ninety, still travelling across Europe on night trains and I thought, ‘there’s a role model.’ Another role model is a lady I know from work and she heads up one of these international organisations; in this case, it’s encouraging environmental data sharing. She came in and changed the entire feel of the collaboration because she made it all about people sharing data and around understanding different parties’ constraints, rather than the previous doctrine, which revolved around ‘you must make your data available in this particular library.’ It was just a very empathetic approach, and I don’t know if it was because she was a woman, but it was so successful.
What do you like to read?
I like biographies. I also quite like light-hearted, off-the-wall, Jonas Jonasson - ‘The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden.’ That’s the book I’ve read most recently and I enjoyed that.
Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
Oh blimey, I am a humanist. I think that I’m a feminist, I’m a humanist, I’m a masculinist .
Why are you not a feminist in particular - is it something about the movement that means you don’t want to wholly associate with it?
I suppose the word implies a bias or prejudice and actually I’m much more about equal rights for all.
What is the one piece of advice you have picked up over your professional life that can apply to any career and you would like to pass on?
Hold your own. Resilience. Hold your own and don’t doubt yourself as quickly as others might doubt you.
Click the links below for more information on:
Shrewsbury High School, Shrewsbury
Shrewsbury Sixth Form College, Shrewsbury
A-Levels: Maths, Physics, Chemistry
University of Leeds, with year abroad
Degree: Metallurgy, 1st (specialised from Materials Science)
University of Cambridge (Darwin College)
Researcher and Exhibition Developer, Science Museum, London
Earth Observation Science Coordinator, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Swindon
Head of Earth Observation and Future Missions, NERC, Swindon
Assistant Director of Earth Observation, Department of Business Innovation and Skills, London
UK Location Programme Manager, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London
UK Space Agency, Swindon
In between juggling quiet rooms to talk in and exchanging gap year tales, we interview Dr. Alice Bunn on wanderlust, the University of Cambridge and why she would not necessarily call herself a feminist...
And what did we learn from Alice?
That gap years are 100% a good idea - a gap year prepares you for university, and the curiosity to find out more about different cultures is a rewarding asset.
Getting the best of both worlds by going to university as an undergraduate and Oxbridge as a postgraduate is a rewarding course of action - both allow you to experience the real university life, academically and socially
The UK Space Agency is great for travelling and bonding different countries through space programmes - but it can be quite wearying and is definitely a male-dominated career path
Flexible working hours isn't just needed for working mothers - and it shouldn't be made into a gender issue
Alice notices the women around her, from the bold female leaders of conferences to ninety-year-olds still travelling around Europe on a sleeper train, and they all inspire her. This is something we should all be doing too.
What does a Director of Policy actually do? (In Alice's own words)
Well, I have five teams:
The first team is looking at European space policy.
So, 80% of our budget is still spent through the European Space Agency (ESA) and the EU-run space programmes as well, so our work with Europe is incredibly important
I have a second team which is an international team
- by this I mean exports and inward investment. More and more different countries are now getting involved in space programmes, when it used to only be two: the US and Russia. Now, there’s about 67 different countries that have their own space programmes. .
The third area is communication,
by which I mean corporate communications. Space is one of those subjects that really attracts public interest and we try and do quite an active outreach campaign to highlight that the UK is playing a really important role in space. This will be especially true this year when we have our first UK astronaut going up into space at the end of the year, a guy called Tim Peake who’s due to launch in December. My communications team are currently planning a whole load of outreach campaigns to make sure that we make it a national celebration. This is with the hope of inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.
The fourth is security and regulations
- we issue licences in the same way that other bits of government deal with tax cards, and we issue these licences for spacecrafts. For a spacecraft to get its licence, it has to prove that it has technical integrity, that it can be operated safely and that the company owning it can meet many years of operating obligations. This is because missions tend to be a long time, so in part that’s around licensing, but it’s also around the security of the space-operating environment. I’ll explain this a little bit more: so in much the same way as cars drive along the M25, satellites orbit in certain orbits, but unlike the roads, the legal frameworks for space are quite fragile because no one owns space. So we do a lot of work in making sure that everyone adopts the same kind of code of conduct - you can think of it very broadly like everybody driving on the left hand side of the road, otherwise we’re all going to crash.
Finally, the fifth area is more to do with special projects,
which at the moment is largely focused on the spending review, so the budget-setting across government that has been playing out and will continue to play out towards the end of this year.
"...you had Russia, US, China, Japan, India, you name it, all these different countries around a table who in ordinary circumstances have quite a lot of political differences, but space programmes can quite often transcend those political differences"
What do you like, what do you not like, what was useful, what should we have asked instead? Please give us your feedback