Today's suffragettes: Sophie’s one of few to join the jet set

Sophie Harker
Sophie Harker
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Although she is just 26 years old, when Sophie Harker looks up and sees the Typhoon fighter jet flying over she can think, ‘I’ve got buttons I designed  in the cockpit of that plane’.

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Helen Sharman

Helen Sharman

Sophie, who is an aerodynamisist with defence company BAE in Warton, has the satisfaction of knowing that she has contributed to the most advanced multi-role combat aircraft on the market.

She is one of the 11 per cent of women working in engineering today and one of the even smaller percentage of women working in aerospace.“It’s something that you know you’re going to leave your legacy, your mark on the world,” said Sophie.

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As well as having a highly succesful career herself, Sophie also goes in to schools to encourage more girls to consider a future in engineering or technology.

She said: “The biggest hurdle of getting women into engineering isn’t when they’re in, once they’re in they have thriving careers and it’s fantastic for them but it’s the getting in because they don’t know it’s available for them.

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“Whenever I go to a school, particularly girls, are so scared to show they’re smart.

“I see it so often and it does break my heart.”

Since she was 16, Sohpie’s dream was to be an astronaut.

It all started with a visit to the John F Kennedy Space Center in Florida with her parents when they were on holiday at Disney Land.

“I had been to the Science Museum in the UK but Kennedy Space Centre was different. I got to see one of the Space Shuttles, the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo missions and see an IMAX film where a female astronaut went to Mars.

“I decided I wanted to be an astronaut then.”

Back in the UK she booked a place on Space School.

“It was the best week of my life,” she said. “The best money I’ve ever spent.

At the Space School which was held at the University of Leicester along with others Sophie learnt to scuba dive, played with dangerous liquids and tried out indoor air diving.

She said: “We had to assemble a block version of the Mars Exploration Rover underwater so we learnt to scuba dive.

“We went to loads of lectures about black holes and space travel and learned about the mechanics of rockets.

“We got to play with liquid nitrogen, throwing it down the stairs, which was absolutely amazing. It was the first time I really got to have fun with science.”

At university in Nottingham, Sophie went on to study a combined maths masters and it was during that time that she entered into a competition called Our Space.

She sent judges a video about the physics of computer games that would work in space with a low gravity, low friction environment so things like Tetris, Crash Bandicoot and Quiddich.“In the video I talked about how they would actually work in space and from that I won the Garriott Games prize,” said Sophie.

“Part of the reward for that was going to the Houses of Parliament and I got to meet the Parliamentary Space Committee, I met Richard Garriott who was running the competition, Piers Sellers and Helen Sharman (below) who was the first Briton in space.

“I was pretty star struck when I met them, I was so nervous about meeting Helen.

“When I finally plucked up the courage to talk to her I asked her what I needed to do, what I needed to be to become an astronaut and she said be an engineer and that is it – that’s how I became an engineer in that one conversation with her.”

Following her conversation with Helen, Sophie tailored all her modules to applied maths.

“Engineering is applied maths anyway so I doing fluid dynamics and electromagnetism,” said Sophie.

“Then between my third and fourth year I got an internship at BAE in Christ Church working on Falcon which is the army’s version of the internet.

“I ended up doing software engineering which I’d never done - I thought I was going to hate it but I actually loved it so I went back and finished my masters and then came back to BAE on their graduate scheme.”

It was while she was on the grad scheme that Sophie managed to get experience with the team working in the cockpit of the Typhoon doing systems design work which led her to develop the buttons. She also worked on the fighter’s aerodynamics.

Sophie is now essentially eligible to apply to the European Space Agency if they are hiring but she still feels she needs more experience to be a competitive candidate.

As well as having four awards to her name now she also became a chartered engineer in 2017.

But although she is reaching for the stars Sophie also like to remember the words from one of her idols the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who was the first person to ever do a spacewalk.

“He says that you should never aim to be more than you are but you should aim to be the best that you are.

“He’s a big inspiration for me.”

And Sophie hopes that by visiting schools and telling pupils what she does that she can help to open up their minds about the kinds of futures available in engineering.

She said: “Engineering is pretty bad in terms of female representation in the UK. It’s actually the lowest in Europe and aerospace is even worse.

“It’s not because it’s not an appealing career it’s because people don’t realise its an option for them and I know that I was exceptionally fortunate to have met Helen Sharman and to have got that moment. I thought when I was young that an engineer was someone who fixed your washing machine. I didn’t realise that they are actually inventors and problem solvers – I’d say that was my biggest hurdle.

“The biggest hurdle of getting women into engineering isn’t when they’re in, once they’re in they have thriving careers and its fantastic for them but it’s the getting in because they don’t know its available for them.

“Whenever I go to a school, girls are so scared to show they’re smart. When I talk to them one on one they are so with it, they are so clever but when it comes to a group of them who say its not cool to like cars and that’s fine because its not for everyone but also you kind of have to ignore those people.

“I am a full-on nerd and I am really okay with that but if you think it’s not cool to be smart you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

“Don’t be afraid to be smart.”