Wananga landing Wananga landing

Women in Space is on a mission to reach for the stars

18 February 2022

Does your future lie in the stars? If you’re working in the space sector in Aotearoa New Zealand or someone who wants to, there’s a network of Kiwi women committed to achieving stellar goals.


Dr Michele Bannister, UC Graduate & Senior Lecturer, School of Physical and Chemical Sciences

Women in Space Aotearoa New Zealand is a new organisation dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and other gender minorities to work in space fields and pursuing gender equity in the space sector so we all can reach for the stars.

Its aim is to provide a professional network and inclusive community that supports women working in the space sector in New Zealand, provides mentorship for women wanting to enter the sector and encourages the next generation of New Zealand women to pursue a career in space, particularly in STEM fields.

UC graduate & Aerospace Technical Specialist Kate Breach Kate Breach, UC graduate & Aerospace Technical Specialist

Women in Space Aotearoa New Zealand members represent a wide variety of fields in the space sector, including science, engineering, business, medicine, policy, and law. It includes many women working in the New Zealand space sector including at universities and research institutes, in government roles and in the New Zealand space industry.

Its founding members – who share a common passion for space and supporting New Zealand women working in the space sector – include these stellar women from the University of Canterbury:

Dr Michele Bannister, UC graduate & Senior Lecturer, School of Physical and Chemical Sciences University of Canterbury

What is your current role and what does it involve?
I’m a planetary scientist at Te Kura Matū, the School of Physical and Chemical Sciences, in the Science Faculty of the University of Canterbury. As a scientist with interests from geology through to astronomy, my role is incredibly varied. On any given day, I can be working on newly arrived images from one of the world’s big telescopes, involved in a collaborative chat about details of a space mission with colleagues overseas, helping students work through their understanding of the latest finding in planetary geology, solving a data visualisation problem with Python programming, or organising a field trip to our observatory at Takapō (Tekapo) — and that’s just one day of the week.

How did you get here?
I grew up in the small coastal and rural community of Waitara, Taranaki, and came to the University of Canterbury for undergrad; I liked both astronomy and geology, and was doing both in my BSc. Then a visiting professor explained there was this field called ‘planetary science’ where you got to do both! So, I kept up both during Honours, which was challenging but doable, and then focused more toward astronomy for my PhD, where I looked for new worlds like Pluto in the southern hemisphere sky. That took me to Australia, and after that postdoc jobs in planetary astronomy in Canada and Northern Ireland, before returning to New Zealand in early 2020.

What advice do you have for young New Zealand women interested in the space industry?
There are really fun problems to solve and fantastic colleagues all around the world to work with. You’ll want some good skill sets. Be prepared to put in the mahi to get good at something you like doing, whatever it may be — and you never know where you’ll end up applying that. Chat to people: let them know what you find interesting. One opportunity leads to another, and people will help you to make them happen.

Dr Sarah Kessans, Senior Lecturer, School of Product Design, University of Canterbury

What is your current role and what does it involve?
I am a Lecturer in the School of Product Design at the University of Canterbury. The majority of my teaching and research is focussed on using plants, fungi, and bacteria to produce chemical products ranging from pharmaceuticals to agrichemicals. My research is split up between two main topics: fungal synthetic biology and technology development for research in microgravity. Although these two topics may seem completely separate, we're working towards developing strategies for food and pharmaceutical production for future space exploration, and by combining both of my research areas, we'll be able to develop organisms and facilities that can provide this production in space.

How did you get here?
I have always loved science, and I was fortunate to have some incredible teachers and mentors who encouraged me into a career in science research from a very early age. Plant biology research in high school and as an undergraduate in university led me to plant-based vaccine research during my PhD, which led to several post-docs in biochemistry and my current position as a lecturer. In 2017, I had the honour of participating in NASA's Astronaut Candidate selection process, which expanded my perspectives related to the opportunities for scientific research on the International Space Station and in microgravity. It's been really exciting to translate those new perspectives and passions into helping to diversify Aotearoa's expanding space industry.

What advice do you have for young New Zealand women interested in the Space industry? 
Find someone in the industry who is doing something you're excited about and get in touch with them to find out how you might be able to get involved. Don't be afraid to try new things that might be outside of your comfort zone or level of expertise!

Kate Breach – UC graduate & Aerospace Technical Specialist, New Zealand Space Agency

What is your current role and what does it involve?
I am an Aerospace Technical Specialist with the New Zealand Space Agency. I work with New Zealand space companies, universities, international space companies and other national space agencies to help further develop the New Zealand space sector, as well as providing technical advice to the New Zealand Space Agency for space policy development.

How did you get here?
I’m an aerospace engineer, with a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) with Honours from the University of Canterbury. I was an Engineering Officer in both the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the Royal Air Force in the UK, where I led a team of engineers working on Eurofighter fighter jets. I also hold a Master of International Relations and worked in corporate project management roles and in foreign policy, representing New Zealand at international space meetings including the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, before joining the New Zealand Space Agency.

What advice do you have for young New Zealand women interested in the Space industry?
If you can dream it, keep chasing it! When I was at high school, I wanted to be an astronaut – I wrote to NASA asking how and they wrote back! Although there wasn’t a way for a New Zealander to become an astronaut I didn’t let that dampen my dreams, which led to me becoming an engineer working on fighter jets. And now New Zealand has a space sector and a space agency, where I get to work on space every day. If the job you want in space doesn’t exist yet, don’t stop working towards it – the space sector is developing fast, and your dream space job might exist in New Zealand one day!

Dr Sarah Kessans Dr Sarah Kessans, Senior Lecturer, School of Product Design

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