11 mins read 09 Aug 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Dr Bianca Capra

Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special.

Dr Bianca Capra. Credit: Supplied.

In March each year, we not only celebrate International Women’s Day but we also enjoy learning about all the contributions women have made to society during Women’s History Month. Originally started in the US in 1987, it has in recent times, in part due to social media, become more well known across the world. 

As a celebration of all the wonderful work, inspiration and support that women across our region do in the space sector, will be speaking to a new women in the Australian space community weekly, to uncover their stories and find out who inspires them.  

Dr Bianca Capra - Hypersonics Research Specialist

What is your role?

I am an aerospace engineer, mentor and advocate for greater diversity in engineering and the broader aerospace sector. My technical role is best described as a specialist in the heating and thermal analysis of high-speed vehicles. I use the principles of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics to model, predict and understand the thermal performance of these vehicles and the surrounding flow to ensure a successful mission, which can help with things like rockets, re-entry from space, and other high-speed vehicles.

I am also a teacher and educator with a passion for helping the next generation of aerospace engineers increase and enhance their skills and build Australia’s aerospace engineering capability. I am also a strong advocate for greater diversity in engineering, and aerospace in particular. Since my time as an undergraduate I have often found myself as the only female in the room in my technical area, a trend that continues today. I am driven by this experience to ensure that the new generation sits at an engineering design table that fully reflects our society - and that means creating more diversity and equity in engineering where all members of our society belong. 

How did you end up working in the space sector and what drew you to it?

I've held a long-term ambition to have something to do with flying things and space exploration so I think it is inevitable that I would end up in the aerospace / space sector in some capacity. Originally, my goal was to be a pilot, however, this dream did not come true. What did come true though was finding a career that combined my love of maths, physics, creative problem solving and all things space and flying via aerospace engineering. Once I discovered this field and the creativity needed by engineers, I was hooked. 

I discovered the world of high-speed atmospheric flight during my undergraduate degree which I continued into my graduate studies on the heating associated with reentry vehicles. I have since worked on high-speed engines and combustion as well as continued my long-term interest in better understanding and managing the heating of high-speed vehicles. And through all of this, I have used maths and physics to creatively solve high-speed engineering challenges. 

What is it about maths that you enjoy? 

Maths is the foundation of life. It underpins everything we do and helps us understand and change our environment. I love maths as it is both logical and creative, there is beauty in understanding the mathematics of the physics that underpin our world. For me, maths allows me to solve the very complex equations of fluid motion, analyse temperatures and heat paths in vehicles, describe how a vehicle travels, governs the combustion and thrust production of engines and provides a mechanism of describing how a vehicle responds to flow. Maths is everywhere, and I use it daily to solve problems and find engineering solutions. 

What advice would you give to people looking to start their career in the Australian space Industry, whether they are new graduates or those looking to move their careers over?

I would say, be bold and take that giant leap for all of humankind! It is truly an exciting time to be in the Australian space industry and the opportunities are boundless. The sector is broad and varied, with all skills needed to advance Australia’s space capability. The sector needs skills across rocket and launch capability, satellite development, advanced propulsion, space-based monitoring to space laws to name a few. So chances are, if you are passionate about space, there is a role for you. 

If you're starting out as a young person in school, for example, I would say to be quite curious and don't discount anything. Understand that the space sector, if you're going to be on the technical side of it, also requires a lot of creativity and communication as well as the maths and science side. My advice would be to think about adding the A (or arts), history, or creative pursuits to your STEM skill set. 

If you are a young person currently studying engineering then I would say seek out some internships, or work placements in our local Aussie companies servicing the space industry. It's a great way to apply what you are learning to the real world, gain skills and network with people in the industry. There are opportunities out there waiting for you. 

If you are looking to move careers and you have a STEM-based background, then consider taking some postgraduate short courses to help pivot your skills. There are great options out there focused on space engineering for example and other space-based skills. If you don’t have a STEM-based background, then the industry is still for you. Ethical and equitable use of space requires much more than STEM, we need lawyers, policy experts and ethicists with a strong passion for space. 

There really is space for everyone in space!

What inspired you to get more involved in organisations like Women In Aviation International and Young Women in Engineering?

In Australia, less than 13% of degree-qualified engineers are women, yet women make up 50% of Australian society. Something has gone wrong here. We should be seeing gender balance in engineering here in Australia. Adding to this statistic is the disengagement of boys and girls in advanced maths and physics at school - girls in particular when it comes to maths. These subjects are foundational to university-level STEM degrees such as engineering. It’s no wonder we have a shortage of not just female engineers, but engineers in Australia. It’s statistics like these, together with my own experience as being the only woman in the room, even today, which drive me to make the change I want to see. I want to see an engineering workforce that is representative of Australian society, and that means achieving gender parity. 

Programs such as UNSW Canberra’s YoWIE (Young Women in Engineering), which I have been involved with since 2019, are doing just this. This event is designed specifically for young women to experience engineering, and learn from female engineers across all fields. The program is making an impact with some of our YoWIEs having already embarked on an engineering education. I also do a lot of work with Women in Aviation International (Australia) (WAI), and the Australian Fluid Mechanics Society (AFMS)  aimed at supporting more women in these male-dominated fields.

In my role with the AFMS I lead a team focused on creating policies to address gender disparities, such as gender targets at conferences, provision of childcare and establishing structural mechanisms to support minorities within my technical field. These policies are making a real impact, with the demographics changing noticeably. Seeing these young women and other under-represented groups being structurally supported to excel in their chosen careers is what it is all about, and what fuels my passion to keep advocating for gender parity in engineering.

I love engineering, and I love supporting underrepresented groups to excel in this field.

Dr Bianca Capra is passionate about diversity within engineering. Dr Capra also won the prestigious Spitfire Memorial Defence Fellowship in 2021 which allowed her to advance her research in hypersonics. Credit: Spitfire Association.

Which women in the history of the Space Industry do you look up to? What was it about their achievements that resonated with you?

Looking back from when I was young I don't think I had any female role models in what I am doing now, which is quite sad really. Imagine wanting an exciting career in a field but not seeing a single person like you in that field? What message is that sending to people about belonging? Luckily, this is rapidly changing and young people of today can see themselves in the Space career they want.

Although I may not have had local female aerospace engineering role models when I was younger I have a lot now. One is Air Vice Marshall (AVM) Cath Roberts who I was really fortunate enough to meet when I was named a Superstar of STEM in 2019.  AVM Roberts is simply a powerhouse!  She’s had an amazing career as an aerospace engineer culminating in her being the inaugural Defence Space Commander. I find her so inspirational personally and professionally, and I just wonder about the impact a role model like AVM Roberts would have had on me as a 14-year-old. No doubt, she is now a role model to all young people with an interest in space. 

I am also really inspired by the younger generation of engineers entering the aerospace and space sector. Working in higher education has given me the opportunity to teach and learn from our next generation of engineers. I find it immensely rewarding and empowering to watch and learn from students, their ideas, drive and passion is infectious and helps me shape my career goals further.  

What do you think are some of the issues faced by women in the space sector, have you faced any and how do you think they should be resolved?

Women have long been expert engineers, however, they have remained hidden and not celebrated as openly and often as their male counterparts, and this likely contributes to some incorrect beliefs on who an engineer is. 

I certainly have experienced some of the standard things other women in male-dominated fields have such as being spoken over in meetings, having ideas dismissed and being patronised. Recently I heard a comment that recruiting women in order to balance genders in male-dominated fields will decrease standards. Sadly, this is not the first time I have heard this and it encapsulates the bias, either unconscious or not, that women and other minorities face, sometimes daily. I want to make it very clear that correcting a structure that has excluded 50% of the population for many years, by design or not, does not, and will not lower standards. On the contrary, the sectors that embrace diversity will be stronger, more creative and more efficient. 

I work across a number of areas to help break biases, opinions and structures that have sadly excluded women from engineering for too long. This requires a suite of tools and initiatives and also has no quick fix - to have a gender-balanced STEM workforce will require significant change. Effective strategies include implementing gender targets, creating support at key points to support minorities into senior roles, creating inclusive environments where everyone belongs and having visible diverse role models so all people with a passion for STEM see someone like them excelling in their field. It is also important to communicate clearly that correcting the gender imbalance is not about taking jobs and opportunities away from others, it is about creating a larger table with space enough for all of us to be involved and contribute. 

What has been your most interesting discovery or been the most interesting space-related project you have worked on or been part of?

The highlight might also be the low point! Aerospace is a high-stakes game and I'd say that one of my biggest highlights was almost 10 years ago as a member of the University of Queensland-led SCRAMSPACE flight test vehicle. I did all the heating analysis of this vehicle over its planned flight, in and out of the atmosphere. This involved determining material selection, ensuring the vehicle remained structurally sound and thus could complete its mission. SCRAMSPACE launched in September 2013 from Norway and sadly crashed due to a rocket booster problem. The vehicle never completed its mission, and that meant I also never got the data to confirm my analysis. Although the failure of the vehicle was disappointing, being part of a university-led, international team to design, build and fly a test vehicle was an experience I will remember forever.