2021 Jocelyn Bell Burnell Medal and Prize

Sara Motaghian for developing spectral mission software for ExoMars to expedite analysis and maximise scientific mission return, her equity work leading Roving with Rosalind, and inspiring thousands of children with ExoMars.

Sara Motaghian IOP Jocelyn Bell Burnell Medal and Prize winner 2021

Sara Motaghian is an exceptional planetary scientist and physicist developing key mission software for the search for life with ExoMars using spectral instrumentation. She works tirelessly to promote equity across all STEM sectors. Her PhD research uses cross-disciplinary experiments that test ExoMars rover spectral instrumentation to develop mission software, improving astrobiological target interpretation.

Thanks to her contributions to ExoMars field trials, Motaghian was invited to join the ExoMars PanCam team in 2019. She has given several invited research talks in the UK and Europe, and been on panels about the future of space exploration.

Motaghian has always worked to support others to succeed in the industry. She achieves this through mentoring peers, advocating for equity, inclusivity and accessibility in her activism, and at a grassroots level creating a nationwide education programme, Roving with Rosalind (RwR). Thanks to her passion for activism and advocacy, Motaghian has been invited to speak on several panels to address equity concerns for organisations such as the Glasgow Science Centre, UKSEDS and Edinburgh Women in Space.

She designed the RwR project specifically to provide underserved audiences with practical, engaging and inspiring upskilling opportunities in STEM. Motaghian successfully applied for £30,000 from the UK Space Agency to put together practical kits with dozens of STEM resources designed to develop students’ science capital.

RwR sends the kits to educational groups and schools for free, removing geographical and financial barriers to participation. Motaghian also developed and delivered continuing professional development training for science teachers and STEM ambassadors to highlight applications of physics in space science.

In order to address skills gaps in students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Motaghian has partnered with several organisations, including In2Science, to deliver her interactive physics programming workshop that teaches students python programming, improving student confidence, skills and outcomes in physics.

She also works with the Wohl Reach Out Lab at her university, Imperial College London, to develop and deliver physics lab practicals to a network of schools across London as part of the university’s commitment to improving science literacy and facilitating a diverse student population.

RwR kits have been used by 600 students so far, and Motaghian’s python programming course has been attended by 400 students and her practical rover design workshop for National Astronomy Week had more than 4,000 students participating, with amazing feedback.

As a result of the success of the RwR programme, Motaghian has been invited, and is now working with, the European Space Agency Robotics Working Group to provide the framework for their Europe-wide robotics outreach programme based on RwR.