Headed for space: UNSW's Olivia Widjaja striving to tackle the space junk problem

She might still be a student, but Olivia Widjaja has already fought enough battles to prepare her for the real world.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor
Image: Olivia Widjaja

There's an episode on the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory where the main characters are gathered on the roof of an apartment building to perform a lunar laser experiment.

Watching that episode at the time, Olivia Widjaja never imagined she would one day end up doing something similar, except she did during her four month internship as an initial orbit determination engineer at Electro Optic Systems (EOS).

"What [EOS] mainly do is detect space debris that's about to collide with another object, and use high-accuracy lasers on Mount Stromlo [Observatory in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory] to track it and provide more accurate predictions. They are also working on methods to use lasers to nudge the debris to avoid the collisions that generate more debris," she told ZDNet.

"What I did was use different numerical methods to predict various possible ways that debris can travel and improve the algorithm by lowering its error as much as possible, so then we can hopefully run it in real-time and use it with other tools, such as debris-nudging lasers."

Watching The Big Bang Theory as child was where the interest in science and space started for Widjaja, who is now a fourth-year aerospace engineering student at the University of New South Wales.

"They used a lot of science jokes and I wanted to understand them and that's where I learned a lot of the things myself," she said.

Despite her interest, the support during school life to enter the field could not have been further from helpful.  

"I was a little bit frustrated when I was in primary school because my primary school didn't have any STEM classes. They had maths, but they didn't have science, so I was teaching myself. I remember stealing my sister's science textbooks just to read it," she said.

She explained how it worsened during high school where she attended an independent girls' school and had to choose two electives to study in year 9 and 10 -- and that her elective choices were whittled down involuntarily because priority was handed to students at the brother school.

"That year was the first time the brother school was offering new electives -- it was woodwork and engineering. Of course, I was excited and thought I wanted to do engineering; that was my first preference … [but] I remember being pulled aside by the vice principle -- as well as with a few other girls who put engineering as an elective -- and got told that all the boys took the spots, so we had to choose different electives," Widjaja said.

"I was a bit annoyed at the time, so I swapped it out for commerce but in retrospective, I should've kicked up a fuss about it."

See also: Honoring Women's History Month in tech

Widjaja continued to face sexism first-hand when she started university.

"A particular example in my head was in first-year during O-week, I was asking a male student a bunch of questions about uni life, and when it came to the topic on my HSC results and how I did better in my humanities subjects that maths and physics, he recommended me to 'really consider if engineering is what I want to do', especially if I find myself failing in first year," she said.

While she admitted to failing a "bunch of courses" during her first year of university, Widjaja accredited her determination to persevere.  

"I was stubborn enough to stay in my degree, secured myself some work with EOS, and am close to graduating," she said.

As to where she hopes to her career will land after graduation, Widjaja is confident it will be in space sustainability, an area she hopes to raise more awareness about.

"It's been an issue since the '60s and it's just got worse and worse," she said.

"The unfortunate thing is that space debris wasn't really in the news until last year when a piece of debris was going to hit the International Space Station. Only when something bad happens do people realise that's a thing."

She believes part of the solution is better regulation and coordination.

"There are so many satellites being launched. A lot of them is a good thing – we need internet communications, and we need it to monitor the environment. At the same time, there are so many dead satellites up there that's floating around," Widjaja said.

"We kind of forget about it because the media is always like, 'Oh, this company is launching this amount of satellites', which sounds great but realistically how can we promote quality over quantity in the field of sustainability, and how can we better collaborate and share each other's data so that we're not constantly launching independent satellites and increasing the congestion up there."

Read: NASA wants to convert waste into space gold

In addition to wanting to help solve the space junk problem, Widjaja also hopes to become a role model for other women who are looking to enter the field. She has started mentoring first-year UNSW engineering students and is also a mentee herself as part of the Western Sydney Women's network.

"I think that we need to promote the idea that women shouldn't have to work to 'blend in' and be like 'one of the boys' just because we study and work in a male-dominated industry," she said.

"We shouldn't feel ashamed for enjoying 'traditionally feminine' activities such as being into fashion and makeup and force ourselves to adopt 'traditionally masculine' hobbies, such as playing video games and building PCs. Of course, this can apply to men as well.  

"I think that having unique interests and personalities is what allows us to bring diverse opinions, especially in an industry that strives for innovation."


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