7 mins read 06 Jun 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Dr Cindy Ong

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 Cindy Ong at a vicarious calibration site that is being developed at Nambung National Park, Western Australia. 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 Cindy Ong - Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

What is your role at CSIRO?

I am a principal research scientist at CSIRO, where I apply my environmental and remote sensing expertise, particularly imaging spectroscopy, across different disciplines. 

For example, in the energy sector where there is growing interest in the capabilities of spaceborne greenhouse gas (GHG) sensors to measure and monitor fugitive emissions related to onshore gas operations. 

I also work extensively developing calibration and validation (cal/val) infrastructure for Earth observation missions. Satellite data needs to be calibrated and validated using ground-based sensors. I’m currently leading a team developing a calibration site in the Nambung National Park in WA. 

I’m also a bit of a mascot/champion for imaging spectroscopy so I am also involved in science advisory groups for international missions.

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

I did not make a concerted effort to go into the space sector. Instead, I wanted to pivot into the environmental area after completing a graduate degree in mechanical engineering.  

I ended up working at the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA WA). They thought my analytical skills could be useful for analysing satellite imagery for looking at sea surface temperature to study ocean currents. That brought me to the Department of Land Administration (DOLA) where the remote sensing unit was located.  

DOLA had a close collaboration with CSIRO at the time. That’s when I fell in love with the idea of working for CSIRO. I got my dream job 2 years later. 

Interestingly, I met my first boss at the EPA WA  some years back and he told me he had been following my career. I didn’t realise that he had taken such a keen interest in my development.

Who have you met that has had the most impact on your career journey so far?

I had a very fortunate start in CSIRO where I was nurtured from the very start by a supportive supervisor, Peter Hick, who held my hand when required, encouraged me to not be afraid to knock on any doors, and taught me the business (mine environment monitoring) by literally bringing me to every client meeting. 

At the same time, we were working in a very successful cross-divisional program with a highly respected leader, Tony Milnes (his breadth of knowledge and ability to connect the dots was legendary). Everybody counted for him – even a young, painfully shy graduate. 

I was also lucky to have great mentors. A standout is Maurice Craig who is not only a great mathematician but a great teacher – one of the most generous people I’ve come across, extremely humble and I’ve never heard him utter a bad word about anyone. I still have notes that he wrote for me when I was in my early 20s! His development, the minimum noise fraction (MNF) is still used by most imaging spectroscopy scientists to this day!

There are two in imaging spectroscopy particularly, Gregg Swayze who generously gave his time to a young scientist learning the ropes in the application of imaging spectroscopy for acid mine drainage monitoring & then many years of support & collaboration. Then there is Charly Kaufmann, the father of EnMAP who brought me along the EnMAP journey with him. (EnMap is the Environmental Mapping and Analysis Program. It is a German hyperspectral satellite mission that aims at monitoring and characterising Earth’s environment on a global scale.)

More recently, Kurt Thome, the big guru in optical calibration and validation, who guided me and the CSIRO team and is my constant sanity check. Someone I can always count on.

Finally, Stuart Day, In fugitive emissions R&D, who is by far the most experienced & best in the field in Australia and the person who taught me almost everything I know in the area. The last 6 years that I have spent with Stuart were probably my best experience of succession/transition that I’ve experienced in CSIRO.

Dr Sarah Pearce is the Telescope Director in Australia for the Square Kilometer Array. Credit: Karl Schwerdtfeger/CSIRO.

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

This is a challenging question. There were not a lot of women working in Earth observation during my early years as an Earth observation scientist but I started work in the area in very exciting & formative years.  

In the space domain in general, Sarah Pearce is a standout for me because of her breadth and depth of experience and knowledge yet she is approachable, down to earth and authentic.

 I remembered the first time I met her was at a workshop discussing structural changes in CSIRO and she suggested an anarchy structure.  I learned from that that she was refreshingly different and she dared to challenge the status quo.  

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

I would have loved to say that it’s all good but in recent times, I have felt that women (especially women from diverse cultural backgrounds) have still quite a few roadblocks and challenges. For example, we’re still expected to be the quiet achiever, paddling like crazy but seldom get recognised & oftentimes the recognition goes to the superior who can talk better; And if you do find your voice & speak up for yourself, making a sensible argument, often you will be seen as aggressive, too straight forward & branded as too difficult to deal with even though such confidence & assertiveness would be seen as good qualities in men.

The dilemma is that for a person who has worked doubly hard to be recognised for my achievements in male-dominated domains, there is also the fear of being selected just because I am a woman from a diverse cultural background.

I believe being “all neutral” may be a start to a path forward. For example, when candidates are assessed for a job, the gender, age, nationality/culture/ethnicity, and name (all the things that DO NOT determine their ability to do the job) should be blanked out. Candidates should be assessed based on their experiences, skills/ability & references.

Dr Cindy Ong at a USA vicarious calibration site (Railroad Valley, Nevada). Credit: Supplied.

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

Most people who know me would know that the love of my Earth observation life/career is imaging spectroscopy. The use of imaging spectroscopy for mine environment applications is the first and the most interesting discovery for me.

I went to Germany chasing the imaging spectroscopy dream and just before I left Germany, Germany’s first imaging spectroscopy spaceborne mission, EnMAP was approved. I have been on the EnMAP journey ever since - probably one of the most interesting, frustrating & exciting space-related journeys I’ve been part of.