Tracking desert locusts with satellite services
This year brought a locust crisis to eastern Africa, threatening food supplies in an already troubled time.
Rachel, an astrophysics student currently in her third year of university, interned with us over the last few months.
15, January 2021
Find out how she adapted to life in a new country and got to grips with working at a European organisation…
My name is Rachel Venn and I am working as an “Intern in Strategy, Communications and International Relations” at EUMETSAT.
I’m working under Vincent Gabaglio, who is the International Relations Officer at EUMETSAT. Essentially, I’m supporting him in his role in relations with Africa, with whom EUMETSAT have a long-standing relationship. Although we’re a European organisation, we share our satellite data with African Regional Climate Centres and National Meteorological Services, who then use this to track weather hazards and climate change. It’s a great collaboration that makes a lot of difference.
One of the main things I’ve worked on is a webinar we organised with the African Development Bank (AfDB), highlighting the activities and the benefits of Earth observation (EO) in Africa. We coordinated with the AfDB, World Meteorological Organization, African Union and various regional climate centres for this event, which promoted these EO activities to the general public and to decision makers for funding in the future. I was honoured to be given the responsibility of moderating the second session of the webinar, including a round-table discussion between some very impressive people!
Another thing we’ve been looking at is a plan for a cross-African science forum in the future, and as a side project, I’ve been helping update the website for the Coordination Group for Meteorological Satellites (CGMS) and edit the report from the CGMS plenary. Last but not least, I’ve also written an article for the EUMETSAT Science Blog regarding the locust plague in East Africa.
Yes, it was my first internship in the sense that it lasted several months, my costs were reimbursed, and so on. I’ve done some short work experiences before when I was at school, but an internship’s a bit different from that. It’s the longest period of time I’ve spent in one place and away from home, although it’s gone quickly enough that it doesn’t actually feel like it.
Back at the start of March, I was at a conference for youth in the space industry (UKSEDS) that was hosted by my university, the University of Birmingham. Representatives from EUMETSAT were there giving a talk and mentioned the internship opportunities, so I enquired after that.
EUMETSAT appealed to me as I could get involved with the space industry. It was great that I could both apply to an internship while still an undergraduate, and that there were a diverse range of roles available – like working in international relations – even though I come from a physics degree. Typical internships for science students involve a lot of sitting behind a desk and doing coding at a computer for three months, but I wanted to do something that had more of a wider context in the world and was more exciting in that kind of way, and EUMETSAT has that diversity as an international organisation.
Absolutely. I’m studying a degree in astrophysics at the moment, and space has always been something I’ve been very interested in. I wasn’t so sure before my internship if I was going to be able to end up in the space sector, but now that I’ve been here and seen it for myself it feels a lot more tangible – I can now picture myself working in this environment in the future. In that sense, it’s definitely boosted my confidence to try and get into it.
I’m about to go into my third year of an astrophysics degree at the University of Birmingham. Before I came here, I was sitting in my bedroom under lockdown! Therefore, I was actually incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to come here and stay in Germany during such a year and under such circumstances. I’ve had an opportunity that most people in my cohort at university aren’t able to have right now, to be able to leave my bedroom in England and come and do something really different this summer, so I’m really grateful for that.
I’ll go back to university, which will entail what is now called “blended learning”, and is a mixture of online and in-person teaching. It’s hard to be certain how things will pan out depending on what happens in the next few months but I will be able to complete my third year in some way or another.
Current events in the world have showed me that we can never really predict what’s going to happen in the next say, five years. Therefore, I wouldn’t want to hold myself to any kind of rigid expectation that could then get derailed. However, I actually feel more flexible now that the working world feels more tangible to me, so it’s less of a concept to be afraid of, and more something I can envision for myself. Everyone that I’ve met here and spoken to has come into their careers from all sorts of different directions, so that’s reassuring.
As for my expectations, I’m looking at masters courses at the moment. I’d like to branch away from doing astrophysics research and do a master’s programme that can apply more to the real world. I’m particularly interested in the field of space policy and strategy: who regulates space? How can we protect orbits from space debris? So I’m looking at going into science policy courses, and I’m also going to apply to courses involving space science and technology, and I’ll see where that goes and what my options end up being. I’d definitely like to angle myself now more towards the space industry.
I was really looking forward to just seeing the inside of an inter-governmental organisation, and it’s definitely met my expectations in that regard. Everybody is so friendly and welcoming here, and I’ve been made to feel like a member of the team rather than “just the intern”. Working with the AfDB has been an amazing and very exciting opportunity for an undergraduate, so that experience in particular has been fantastic.
Absolutely, after living on my own for three months in a country like Germany where I don’t actually speak any German… although, I can get by perfectly fine it seems! My confidence has increased from actually being a valued member of a team, being in the working world and living on my own.
The most immediate thing I’m taking away is a better understanding of what jobs like this are out there, and what they need, and the skills I need to be developing in the next few years to make myself as useful as possible to the industry. University will involve doing sums and solving specific problems and while that’s an important feature of my degree, it’s all fairly abstract. What I see here is what this person does to make this satellite work and so on. I understand better what I myself can work on.
What will I take away? Experiencing the world of strategy and international relations has been my first formal dive into the world of work outside of a physics background, so I definitely understand what goes on more behind the scenes at space agencies and organisations such as this. It’s given me the confidence to consider applying to these different types of masters and leaving the academic background I’ve been in so far to try something new.
I was fortunate to have fewer challenges than I expected from the coronavirus. Before I came, I was considering all of the things that could go wrong – lockdowns again in Germany and so on. Compared to my worst-case scenarios during a COVID-19 summer, it’s actually been quite smooth sailing and I’m very pleased about that! I don’t think there have been many challenges, sometimes tasks will be difficult but I think if it’s difficult to achieve the task it’s actually helping challenge me a bit more, so I’m gaining something from that anyway.
I’ve lived in the same town all my life – in Warwickshire – and have travelled a lot but never for more than a couple of weeks. I actually think Germany is in many ways very similar to the UK, so I haven’t really had much of a culture shock. I have found that I can’t pay for things contactless with my phone, but that’s been the main obstacle I’ve faced in Germany – needing to have cash all the time! I’ve maybe struggled a bit with understanding German on the trains and so on but aside from that, it’s like a slightly cleaner England!
I’d like to have been able to communicate more effectively in shops and things but overall I didn’t find the language a barrier and I’ve been able to get by.
I really like how in Germany, particularly in the summer, people have a really positive attitude towards the outdoors. Going swimming in lakes was almost unprecedented where I come from in England, and here they’ve actually got an infrastructure around the lakes for people to swim in them. People go for hikes and things on the weekend, and so I think I’ve picked up a stronger appreciation for nature now having been here in that culture.
Well, the building is fantastic – you really feel like you’re somewhere quite special in this satellite-like office. Being able to sit and talk to people from different countries to the point where you almost get used to it is nice because it feels like you’re a part of something bigger and wider. If everyone’s coming from the same town and has grown up in the same place, it can feel like you’re not spreading very far. However, in an international community like this you discover everyone around you has such different experiences.
I took a couple of days leave when a friend came to visit and we travelled all the way around Germany on a rail pass. We went down to the Alps and to Nuremberg and it was great just being able to travel, move around and see somewhere new, particularly in this challenging summer. The scenery was outstanding, so having the opportunity to do that will stay with me for a while.
I enjoy classical music very much, and I actually mentioned this in one of my first weeks and was instantly put in touch with the manager of the EUMETSAT Opera Club and people who are enthusiastic about classical music. Through them I got tickets to see Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in Darmstadt and before I leave I’m going to get to see The Marriage of Figaro at the Frankfurt opera – I’ve never been to an opera before, so it’s actually really amazing.
I wouldn’t have been able to work out how to go to this opera by myself because I don’t have the German needed for the website, so the community at EUMETSAT has supported me in that hobby. I also enjoy playing classical music myself and my specialty is early historical music, so back at home I play the recorder, the viola da gamba (which is a really old instrument) and also the double bass as part of an orchestra.
I’ve also enjoyed playing badminton with the EUMETSAT badminton club since it started up again (following social distance guidelines, of course!).
I think the most important thing for an application is to show that you have a genuine passion and enthusiasm for what you’re applying for. Try to get across why you’re interested in coming to this place, and what you have to offer. Yes, we are students, so there’s only so much we can offer, but that’s why I think having that motivation and that genuineness will get you to where you want to be.
This interview took place in September 2020 during Rachel’s last couple of weeks with us, she has now sadly left the team to embark on her third year at university and we wish her all the best for the future!