by Sara Chothia

Guest Post

Tuesday 4th October this year marks the start of World Space Week, an international celebration of Space, but also science, technology, and the impact of these on our world. As a scientist working in Chemical Biology, I find that many people who enjoy science or who ultimately end up in a scientific career find their love of the subject through space. We quite often remember the first time we learned about the planets – I was in Year 5 of primary school, and we were tasked with making models of each of the (then nine) planets of our solar system. Many of us still recall the pneumonic we were taught to easily remember them in order. My favourite was one I was taught by my brother – My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets – although this is now redundant with Pluto’s lack of planetary status (justice for Pluto?!). I also recall a strong desire to become an astronaut after I played one in my Year 6 play, titled ‘The First Kids in Space’ (I even sang a solo). This was long before I realised how much work and training this might entail, although a small part of me still believes this could become a reality. It’s never too late to achieve your dreams, as they say.

I’m not sure what it is about space that enthrals the masses. Perhaps it is our fascination with the unknown; the vastness of Space can make us feel small in a large, ever-expanding universe, and ultimately gives space a mysterious and exciting feel. It may also remind us of our favourite tales of fiction: Jedis duelling in a galaxy far, far away, or the Vulcan salutation of ‘Live Long and Prosper’. Even our music is quite often influenced by the magic of space travel – David Bowie’s Space Odyssey and Nicki Minaj’s Starships (they were meant to fly) come to mind. This is without getting into what is now an extraterrestrial subculture, and whether we think there might be other life out there in the universe and if so, whether aliens are small and green or look like Steven Spielberg’s E.T.

For me, the magic of space comes from the fact that it isn’t magic at all. Being able to observe the stars in the night sky, or spot Jupiter when it shines brightly, gives me pinch-yourself moments of wonder that I haven’t been able to escape since I was a child. Now that I’m older, I find I have more avenues to explore my love of Space, from frequently using my favourite stargazing app (Sky Map), signing up to email notifications for when the International Space Station flies over my house, or being able to visit the National Space Centre here in Leicester where I am working towards my PhD. I should note that my PhD involves an area of research completely unrelated to space. In complete contrast to the vast nature of space, my research involves the study of formaldehyde, a tiny molecule that is involved in both making DNA but also potentially damaging DNA, which can lead to many diseases including cancer. I have also worked in the pharmaceutical industry, assisting in the development of new drugs to treat disease. This is something that has made the news quite a lot in recent years, with the development of life-changing COVID-19 vaccines. So, while my love of science may have stemmed from space, it has led me to other areas of science that have since become my passion.

Despite my ‘work science’ being unrelated to space, I find myself navigating to ‘space science’ when reading books or catching up with the news. It is fascinating that Einstein’s theories (namely those on relativity) from more than 100 years ago, where he used mathematical calculations to predict the existence of gravitational waves and black holes, are only just being scientifically proven as a result of advances in technology and our ability to study these phenomena. Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime that occur as a result of the large mass and subsequent high gravity of objects in the universe. Black holes are immensely dense points in spacetime where gravity is so strong, even light is unable to escape (in contrast to black holes in science fiction that allow you to travel to other dimensions).

Amazingly, I have found that significant stages in my life have been marked by some fascinating space stories and looking back, I quite often wonder if these titbits of scientific magic may have influenced decisions leading me to a scientific career. Back in 2015, the year I started my undergraduate degree, we saw Major Tim Peake become the first British person to go to Space as part of the European Space Agency. This period in my life is memorable to me for other news stories as well; just a few years earlier we saw archaeologists at the University of Leicester (which would be my next destination) discover the skeletal remains of King Richard III, the last English King to die in battle, beneath a Leicester car park (while not linked to space, my additional fascination of medieval history meant I found this story quite exciting). The 2015 – 16 season also saw Leicester City win their first Premier League title, with celebrations and parades commencing just as I finished writing the final exam of my first year – although, as a Liverpool fan, I found our 30-year long wait for the title to be just a little sweeter. I also remember being fascinated by scientists publishing the first image of a black hole back in 2019, just as I was deciding whether or not to pursue my PhD. I think we all have these moments in our lives that stick with us, and for me, feeling like I am able to make meaningful contributions to science every day, in the same way that these discoveries have made meaningful contributions to my life, are a wonderful, unadulterated joy.

I suppose I should end by trying to convince you that science is worth your time. As someone who very much loves science, but also finds joy in a number of other subjects such as history and literature, it is difficult to wholeheartedly convince you that science is the only way forward. We make contributions to our own lives and those of others through many different avenues, and while science is an incredible way of doing this, humans have become very skilled at carrying out groundbreaking work in a vast array of fields. I will make a point to say that science as a whole struggles with a lack of adequate representation of women and minority groups, and representation is incredibly important. We need the best scientists to do the best science, and these individuals come from all backgrounds. Seeing other scientists who look like me reminds me that I belong in STEM, and if science is your calling then you may be someone who others look to in this way. Apart from this, I would suggest pursuing a vocation you thoroughly enjoy. If you have read this piece about my fascination with space and feel the same way about something else, then perhaps that is your calling.

Many years ago I read a book called ‘Looking for Alaska’ by John Green. In it, main character Miles struggles with making a decision that will hugely impact his future. He is inspired to do so by the famous last words of French writer François Rabelais – “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” I was inspired to seek mine, and I hope you are inspired to seek yours too.

About the Author

After finishing her A-Levels in 2014, Sara completed a Masters degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of Leicester. During her third year she undertook an industrial placement at LGC in Cambridgeshire, analysing pre- clinical and clinical samples in Drug Development Services. Her fourth year research project involved the stabilisation of protein-protein interactions as a novel cancer therapeutic. In 2019, Sara began her PhD at the Leicester Institute of Structural and Chemical Biology to begin research into the biochemistry of human formaldehyde metabolism, and to develop techniques to better study and measure this molecule in biological samples. Some of Sara’s research has been published in journals such as Chemical Science and Chemical Communications. When not doing science, Sara enjoys watching football, reading a vast array of fiction, watching period dramas, and spending time with her family and friends. She also likes to pretend she is making good progress in learning Spanish. You can find Sara’s published works at the links below. 

M. Falcicchio, J. A. Ward, S. Y. Chothia, J. Basran, A. Mohindra, S. Macip, P. Roversi and R. G. Doveston, Chem. Sci., 2021. 

X. Chen, S. Y. Chothia, J. Basran and R. J. Hopkinson, Chem. Comm., 2021.