Science & Psychology

Friday Five: Planetary Scientist Suzie Imber


Answering the #FridayFive today is scientist and high-altitude mountaineer Suzie Imber. You can currently see Suzie competing on BBC 2’s Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? in which competitors are put through gruelling tasks to assess their aptitude to be astronauts.


Tell us a bit about your job?

My job has so many different aspects to it, it’s hard to sum up!  I’m an Associate Professor of Space Physics at a research-intensive University, and my area of speciality is the interaction of the Sun with planetary magnetic fields.  That may not seem like it has much relevance to our everyday lives, however big explosions from the Sun can hugely impact technology here on Earth, and space weather has the potential to damage power grids and satellite instrumentation, and disrupt GPS and communication systems.  I am heavily involved in a European/Japanese Space Agency mission currently on its way to Mercury, called BepiColombo, as my team built one of the instruments on board the spacecraft.  We are in charge of operating our instrument, collaborating with other instrument teams, calibrating, releasing and analysing the data to answer our science questions.  Our spacecraft is en route to Mercury, will do a flyby of the Earth on Friday 10th April (today!), and then will go into orbit around Mercury in December 2025.

There are two other aspects of my job that keep me really busy, one is teaching undergraduates physics and maths, running Masters projects, supervising PhD students and postdocs and mentoring early career scientists, and the other is a huge outreach programme I set up after I won the BBC Astronauts television series, designed to share my love of physics with young people and show them the kinds of careers open to them if they study science.  I have spoken with over 40,000 children over just a couple of years, and hope to continue this programme into the future.

The beauty of my job is that it gives me such freedom to apply my research skills where I find problems that interest me.  One great example was combining maths and programming with mountaineering!  For over ten years now, I have launched months-long high-altitude expeditions venturing to the most unexplored mountain regions of the Andes in South America.  Several years ago I wanted to find out where all the mountains are in the Andes, and devoted some of my research time to mathematically defining what a mountain is, and then writing computer code for our University supercomputer to identify and classify all mountains on the planet.  This then gave me a list of unclimbed mountains to target for my upcoming expeditions!  There aren’t many jobs that allow such intellectual freedom, and one of the real highlights of my job is being able to follow what interests me.


What are the key ingredients for success?

I think the key ingredient for success at work (and in life more broadly) are to find something that you love to do, that gives you huge satisfaction, and gives you purpose.  I am highly internally motivated, and gain a lot of satisfaction from training (I used to be an international athlete), from my day job, and from the other activities in my life.  Having been a rower for many years, I get up at the crack of dawn every day, and I find that’s incredibly helpful to allow me to get some training done, get to work and achieve a pile of things before the rest of the world wakes up.

Describe a normal day?

For me, every day is different, I am always juggling what feels like a hundred different projects, and I never get bored.  Whether I’m discussing the latest science with my students, running the Departmental Admissions programme, working on a space mission or identifying promising space missions for future funding, writing a research grant proposal or supporting the students at the University through my role as their Pro-Chancellor, my day is always packed!

When I’m not climbing mountains, a normal day means getting up early, between 4:30 and 5:30 depending on what the day holds.  Usually a run, either 45 minutes to an hour, or one day a week a run to work (24km).  Usually whatever I had planned for my day has to get started before the rest of the department comes alive, because at that point emails start flying around, students start dropping by, and my plan is out of the window!  I generally work a fairly long day, unless I’m running or walking home again, in which case I like to do most of the journey home during daylight if possible.  I usually do some sort of evening activity too – rock climbing, yoga/meditation, Portuguese language lessons, or working in my orchard.  I am engaged in an international, year-long course focussed on training a network of STEM leaders in sustainability and climate resiliency, so often there is a catch-up call, or online training in the evenings associated with this.

For those trying to break into the industry, could you explain how you got to where you are today?

In terms of qualifications, a physics degree from Imperial College London, then a space plasma physics PhD at the University of Leicester.  I had specialised in studying the Earth’s environment for my PhD, but I went to work for NASA as a research scientist and at that time their spacecraft had just arrived at the planet Mercury, so I gained some unique expertise in understanding Mercury’s dynamic environment.  I brought that expertise back to the UK when three years later I returned to my University (who were also well on the way to building their instrument to go to Mercury), and become a research fellow, then gained a permanent academic post.  I had no plan to become an academic at any point in this journey, I just followed the path that I found most interesting and most challenging at every point.  I find being at the cutting edge of space science research, involved in missions, and training the next generation of scientists hugely rewarding.  The job is enormous and expands to fill the space that you give it in your life, but for me it’s only one part of who I am – climbing, running, mountaineering, languages and environmental conservation all also have a place.

What are you reading, watching and listening to now?

I am fairly careful about how I spend my time; I don’t have a television, and the only thing I watch is the news on my laptop while doing other activities, like making dinner.  At the moment I’m reading Beauty and the Beast in Portuguese, although alongside that I’m re-reading my favourite book of all time, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.


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