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Exploring space communication with Niamh Shaw.

What does it mean to be a STEAM communicator and ESA Ambassador? Niamh Shaw explores the crossovers between STEM, art & communication.



Deep Space


Niamh Shaw is an Irish engineer, scientist, writer and performer. She has two degrees in engineering and a PhD in science. Niamh is passionate about igniting people's curiosity, and exploring crossovers in STEM, art and communication to share the human story of science. 

You can connect with Niamh on LinkedIn and learn more about her work on her website.

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[MUSIC] Welcome to T-Minus Deep Space from N2K Networks.

I'm Maria Varmasus, host of the T-Minus Space Daily Podcast.

Deep Space includes extended interviews and bonus content for a deeper look into some of the topics that we cover on our daily program.

[MUSIC] Today we're talking about the importance of steam communication.

And yes, I meant to say steam, science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics.

And someone who has lived experience on the importance of all of those areas in her fascinating, multifaceted career is Dr.

Neve Shaw.

We're talking to her today about her extraordinary journey from engineering to performance art, and then becoming an ambassador for the European Space Agency.

[MUSIC] My name is Neve Shaw, I'm from Ireland.

And I'm pretty much obsessed with space and our place in it really, I think.

I'm a communicator and writer and performer, and I really like trying to pull out the human stories of space and science to try and help people connect more with their own wonder and curiosity.

So I'm on a kind of a lifelong exploration of the planet and of space.

And I hope one day that I get the chance to get to somewhere like the International Space Station as a reporter, as a communicator to share my human experience of that.

And that would be the ultimate assignment for me.

I love that, and I'm rooting for you.

I want that to happen too.

I often tell people I'm too scared to do that, but I really admire people who want to do that.

So you have a really fascinating career story and career path.

And I think it's, I would love to spend a little time just talking about the amazing journey that you've had, where you started, how you ended up, and what you're doing now.

Would you mind walking me through it?

Because it's just, it's great.

Sure, it's a long one, but I'll try and keep it brief.

You know, this, I'm very lucky now.

The European Space Agency has acknowledged me as one of their Easter champions.

So that means that they, they see the work that I'm doing, you know, in promoting space in the community.

And I'm a fellow of the Explorers Club and I lecture space humanities on the International Space University's Space Studies programme.

And I write in Ireland and I report and I do stuff on social media and I'm report for the BBC about space.

But that just didn't happen.

I mean, I never thought, Maria, that I would ever have a life like that.

I've come from quite a conservative family in a conservative society like Ireland, you know, at that age, when you're making choices about your career, which is 16 or 17, there just was nothing remotely like that.

I didn't even know that that's what I wanted because I couldn't see it.

You know, in the absence of role models, you can't see it.

And female role models as well.

There were no courses around that, you know, and I, I was always stumbling between artistic logic, you know, the college courses I applied for work communications on one hand and then, you know, engineering on the other.

And I chose engineering because my family, they have very formal ideas about why you go to college and they said, you'll get a job from that.

And I enjoyed engineering, but I was OK engineer.

And this kept happening.

I was just OK at a lot of things and loved, loved, love information always have always been curious.

And, you know, at the age of eight, my passion for space began just looking at Star Wars and then finding the Earthrise picture in the children's psychopedia.

And then what even when I finished my degree, it was performance and acting, I was still kind of going toying with that.

And I continued studying.

I did a master's in engineering and again, was acting a lot, performing around that time, but still thought it was just a pastime.

Did a PhD then, which I loved because, you know, I was like a detective.

It's a great thing.

And then once I started getting into full time research, I realized that this isn't for me that the pace of research isn't, it isn't for me.

I'm a talker, you know, and it just, it didn't match what I was doing.

And I think then I knew that my love affair with science kind of, you know, it fell off the wagon and I needed to think differently.

And so I left full time academia and I pursued the Earth because it was always there and I thought maybe it's the arts, maybe this is what I'm looking for.

And I did that and I loved it.

And it was great because it helped me start to look at myself and understand myself and embrace information and failure and trying things.

We're very different from engineering, which is so logical.

And out of that, I worked with some great people and I started getting recognized for my work and I was encouraged to start making my own theater around combining science and the arts.

And the first show I made was an exploration of why am I the only person on the planet who doesn't know what they want to do with their life, because that's what it seemed like to me.

And I looked at different mathematical models around the origins of our universe or how to describe our universe from the smallest thing to the biggest thing.

And one of those was string theory, you know, in particle physics.

And it's a beautiful philosophy, whether it can be proven or not, we don't know.

But actually as a theory, it's actually a great philosophy for life.

It's elegant.

And it made me look at all the choices that I made in my life.

So this theater show was this and one of those choices was this person that always wanted to be a part of space.

And looking at that and trying to recreate that, it was like a massive shift in my life in that moment.

And I realized, why aren't I doing anything about space?

And where did that come from?

And it made me start to look at myself as in what limiting beliefs did I have of myself to stop that from happening?

So it had to be the next artistic project.

So I went into this thinking, OK, when I crack that, you know, I'll get over my passion for space and I'll move on.

But that the opposite happened.

What happened was when I performed that show, people just wanted to help me.

They saw my passion.

They really wanted to fix this 40 year delay in me wanting to fulfill this passion of mine.

And it just kept growing and growing and growing.

I took the show to Edinburgh.

The European Space Agency supported the show.

And they encouraged me to apply for, you know, the International Space University Space Studies program and the space that the International Space University understood this person who is artistic and scientific and on and on and on.

And from that moment, everything kind of happened.

I went on a simulated Mars mission.

I did a zero gravity flight.

And now I've just become a communicator.

So it's back to what I wanted to be when I was 16, which was a communicator and about science.

And it but it's about my my passion, which is space and people and our planet.

That's it.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no That's it in a nutshell on a personal level, I really resonate with your story because I have similar twists and turns in my own life.

So I just wanted to say how amazing it is that ESA recognized the value in what you were bringing and that they elevated that because I feel like, especially in conversations about space that are always very, very technical.

We we forget that a lot of these space agencies really do see the value in what is often sort of cast aside as the softer side of things.

But there is so much importance there.

And what an amazing turning point in your life.

I just I thought it's just an amazing thing.

Yeah, it is.

I was very lucky.

There was an Irish woman that we had.

It was kind of a bunch of like four Irish women at the time that I kind of started reengaging with the European Space Agency.

And they they were at the time really they really understood the importance of that artistic perspective to bring a human a human context to all this great research and stuff that was going on.

And the value of putting astronauts on the International Space Station.

And they just got it and they and then everybody they spoke to just got it.

So they supported my applications for funding.

And they said, Niamh's doing really interesting work.

Nobody's doing anything like her.

And I went on and I made a third show then about about Mars and why we, you know, the the case for Mars.

And at the time, you know, what's wrong with doing one way missions, which was Mars one at the time versus having the ethics and doing it properly and not ever putting any human in danger.

So if it takes longer to send somebody there, then that's that's what it has to take.

So I've been lucky.

It's like what I realize is from all of this is when you're pursuing the thing that you're most passionate about, it's like people can see it and people are attracted to it and they want to help you.

And that's what was missing in my career up until then.

That's why I was just OK at everything because it wasn't my passion.

And once I combined my just desire to tell stories, wait at a topic that I'm absolutely passionate about, that was it.

That was it.

We'll be right back after this quick break.

I think it is so important to have people like yourself with a strong artistic humanities background and skillset as well as a scientific understanding.

And how amazing it is that you have been doing at analog astronaut work, you've you've gone on a zero G flight.

And now you're in addition to all that, you're also doing all this amazing science communications work.

And I didn't even cover all the amazing things that you've been doing.

I mean, you've been up to some really fascinating things lately.

Can you tell me a bit about what you've been working on?

You know, after I did the simulated Mars mission in the Utah desert, what stayed with me was Earth.

What it did was it actually made me appreciate all the resources that we have on this planet and how you you take it for granted, particularly around water that you can flush toilets, you know, and the volume of water that comes out when you flush toilets.

And and I found that when I spoke about it with the general public, these are the things that resonated with them and made them go, yeah, you know, no food, no power, no no infrastructure.

And so it really made me think about, you know, our relationship with our with our own planet.

And so I you can't keep going on on analog Mars missions.

Again, you've got to find other ways of trying to find a better way in.

And so the biggest issue we have in our planet is is that we're not really taking very good care of it.

And so how do we make people care more about our planet?

And how do I connect that lovely philosophy about space that makes us think of these bigger pictures back to Earth?

So I've been actively seeking out going to extreme other extreme places to see if I can pull more more of that from the place.

So I was in Botswana.

I was in the Kalahari Desert in July, working with a team of scientists who were looking at this dry salt pan during the dry season.

The Magadi Gadi salt pan for structures, very similar to what they're seeing on Mars.

But they know these structures relate to sources of groundwater.

So if they if their model works there, then they can say that the same model will work on Mars, you know, theoretically.

And that was six nights in the desert, no running water, no toilets, nothing living in the bush.

And you learn a lot about yourself.

And again, you slow down and you go into that bigger thinking space like you do when you when you think about space.

And the climate is something that, you know, is is the most useful thing I can do with my skills.

So how do I connect climate change with the topic of space?

So I was very lucky that I got to be a part of a of an international women in STEM leadership program based in Australia called Homeward Bound.

And they're trying to help women like me upskill in climate change so we can become better communicators of it.

And you do this online program, but it culminates in a three week voyage to the Antarctic with scientists on board.

We're all scientists, but they also had an expedition team who had all done research on the on the mainland on the continent, whether with penguins or birds or whatever.

And we had one of the guys who contributed to all the David Attenborough programs like the Blue Planet, you know, Frozen Planet, all those.

And every day, like our minds are being filled with this.

And I got to go to the Antarctic.

And again, Maria, I come from a really small town, from a really conservative area, never in a million years would I have thought that I would ever have the privilege to have that experience.

And like, it's incredible when you change the way you see yourself and whatever limiting beliefs you have about what you are allowed to do with your life.

It's amazing.

The path just clears for you.

So I found myself the bottom of the world.

And again, the mind slows down.

So there's a pattern you slow down and you start to feel, I don't know if this sounds trippy or anything, but you I really felt that I could feel the age of our planet, you know, like you feel you're in really safe hands down there and everything is working together.

And there's no place for humans there.

Very like Mars, very like anywhere when you take us off earth, where you remove oxygen, water and food, it feels like that, that it's a privilege to be there and it is so beautiful.

It feels like it's not real.

And it's it's like the biggest gulp of emotion.

It's completely overwhelming.

It's like it's an over simulation of the senses in a way.

And again, that's what space does for me.

You know, when you hear about the overview effect and what astronauts talk about this view that they get, and it takes them months to think about it's it's here.

When we as humans are in the midst of it, we can't hear the age of our planet and we can't connect with it because we're so busy with the other ways we've chosen to live.

But we're but we're part of the hierarchy of this universe.

And we have a place and we've earned that place.

And we have chosen to abstract ourselves sometimes from remembering that.

And I think that's that's one of the reasons why we're really struggling with understanding the decisions that we're making around kind of climate change and stuff like that.

So it was it was incredible and it just reinforces that amazing overview effect and how we can find new ways of describing it for people.

What you're saying about stewardship of our planet and also the abstraction of many many of us of our own humanity and our place within our ecosystem.

The biosphere is a very, very, very good point.

I feel like the discussion about space, space, technology and climate change is one of the areas that really resonates with a lot of people right now.

I would imagine maybe with yourself as well when you're talking to people, because I know you do a lot of outreach work, a lot of educational work.

What are you hearing?

What is resonating?

Like what?

How are those discussions happening?

And what's going on right now?

There's a guilt around climate change because people feel it's too big.

Of course, people would do whatever they can, but they don't know what that is.

And so they want to know what can they do?

And so, you know, we're beyond getting people to buy keep cups.

You know, it's it's it's really about information.

And it's about like the more people that have an understanding and have a connection to it, the better chance we have of forcing the people in power with the budgets to really change the infrastructure of how we live.

You know, no more concrete, every house sustainable, every house solar panels, renewable energy, every single house without question, from social housing all the way up.

It can't be just for wealthy people to do this.

It's not going to work.

And if you if you do that, if you if you can get governments to genuinely upend our infrastructure, then we have some chance and and then, you know, like what we're doing with the alternative fuels and everything that they're all happening.

But that's the thing.

But I think.

It's the what I'm always trying to do is look at we already know the answers.

It's just about rolling it out on a big on a big scale, because we know how to keep people in space alive in the absence of oxygen, in the absence of water, in the absence of food or any infrastructure.

So you just we know how to create power from from solar panels.

We know how to like water is seriously recycled on the International Space Station, it gets 11 times and, you know, we pull every every milliliter we can out of everything that's used there.

And we know how to get rid of garbage really well as well.

So all the answers because you've got the best minds thinking about this when you take people off earth.

So just take those same applications and put them for on earth.

And, you know, and that's the thing that I think is obviously there.

And there's a lot of information that our satellites are providing us about climate change, that we know the temperatures and all that kind of stuff.

So it's again, all that information is there.

It's all freely available to us, you know.


Yeah, it's such a great point.

You are the second person I've spoken to recently who made such a wonderful point that we we know how to really efficiently live in space and there are so many lessons for us on earth.

The previous discussion I had was about composting and how we have to be smart about food waste when in space.

And that there are a lot of lessons we can take on earth from that.

And you mentioned water recycling, too.

You know, I feel like those are these are points that can really resonate with with people who don't care about space at all.

And there are plenty of people who don't.



And I think we can't put the responsibility onto the citizen.

It's not fair.

And I think that's what people feel.

I think somebody, you know, the governments or the people who are who are the planners of our future cities, they have to take the responsibility and make make homes sustainable.

It's not it's not the issue for the citizen because they're going to do it.

They're everybody would be more than happy to have sustainable homes.

We're more cost effective for them as well.

Take that responsibility off their shoulders, because that's where it is at the moment, and it's not fair.



It's a it's a micro responsibility for a macro problem.

Doesn't make sense.



Huge issue.

It's been a joy speaking with you.

I wanted to give you the last word.

If there's anything you wanted to say to the audience, I just wanted to give you that opportunity.

I think for me, the biggest gift that space provides us is it gives you a chance to look at the bigger picture of your existence and what you want to do with that.

You know, when you look at how short our lives are in comparison to the scale of the universe, we're alive for such a very short period of time.

And yet in human years, hopefully a lot of us will have a long and fully life, at least up until 80 years.

So how you choose to use that 80 years is really in your hands.

And don't let anyone ever prevent you from that.

And if something is blocking you, it's in your own capacity to challenge that and get back on the path and spend your life pursuing the thing that you love the most.

And that's it for Team Ina's Deep Space for February 3rd, 2024.

We'd love to know what you think of this podcast.

You can email us at space@ntuk.com or submit the survey in the show notes.

Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry.

This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliot Peltzman and Trey Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliot Peltzman.

Our executive producer is Jen Iben.

Our VP is Brandon Karp.

And I'm Maria Varmazes.

Thanks for listening.

Have a great weekend.

[Music] (gentle music)

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