Meet the scientist on a mission to bring diversity to aerospace

17 Oct 2023

Cécile Deprez. Image: European Leadership Academy/Isabel de Oliveira

Cécile Deprez from the German Aerospace Centre discusses the democratisation of space in more ways than one.

For aerospace researcher, Cécile Deprez, part of her mission is to advocate for women and LGBTQIA+ people in STEM fields. Deprez describes aerospace as a “male-dominated” field and wants to use her success to show others what is possible in the sector.

“I intend to be visible so that younger women recognise aerospace as a field where they would also fit!” she says.

Deprez graduated with a master’s degree in geomatics from the University of Liège, Belgium in 2015, where she continued to work as a researcher on satellite navigation systems until 2019. Since then, she has been stationed at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) which is close to Munich in Germany, where she is part of a research group that designs future satellite constellations for ground-user positioning.

Tell us about your current research.

My research at DLR [German Aerospace Centre] focuses on the design of future satellite constellations for positioning of users on earth. Within this scope, I have been working on several constellation concepts integrating new technologies such as precise optical clocks and (optical) inter-satellite links.

Indeed, satellite positioning relies on time measurements, and therefore the precision of clocks used on board spacecraft directly impacts the quality of the positioning of users on ground. Besides, so far, most satellites used for positioning do not communicate directly with one another.

Integrating inter-satellite links in future constellations would improve time synchronisation of satellites, which is, as just discussed, fundamental for positioning and allows them to estimate their positions with a greater precision, in turn improving user position estimation.

Over the past years, with my entire research group, we have worked on the development of a simulator enabling us to estimate the benefit for ground users given by the integration of these cutting-edge optical technologies in next-generation satellite constellations.

‘We are going towards a democratisation of space and we need to be able to adjust to it’

As positioning satellites are spread over several orbital planes, my first mission at DLR consisted in developing schedulers accounting for the quick changes in topology between the satellites over time in order to establish inter-satellite optical links.

In addition to the schedulers, my main contributions to this simulator are the positioning algorithms used to measure the impact of these new systems on the quality of the user positioning.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Nowadays, a large number of applications and sectors rely on, partially or entirely, satellite positioning: agriculture, construction, mining, surveying, aeronautics, automotive and mapping. Therefore, the technologies that we are using for computing user positions need to be reliable, available, robust and precise. With our new concepts for next-generation constellations of satellite positioning, we aim at improving all these different aspects.

In addition, while the space sector has been for a long time the monopoly of government agencies, we now see many private companies setting out to conquer it. This new competition requires providing precise and reliable solutions to users while keeping an eye on cost and commercial feasibility.

Finally, over the past decades, the development of the most recent navigation systems (Galileo and BeiDou) has underlined the importance of independent but compatible navigation systems. Today, this compatibility extends to the private sector as well. We are going towards a democratisation of space and we need to be able to adjust to it.

Initially, my research focused on medium-earth-orbit satellites – currently in use for satellite navigation. However, it quickly expanded to low-earth-orbit satellites, which are foreseen as potential platforms for satellite navigation in the next-generation systems.

My current research focuses on the development of original algorithms for orbit determination of these low-earth-orbit satellites.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have always found scientific topics fascinating because they keep on evolving and there is always something new to learn! However, I would have never pictured myself as a researcher in the aerospace field.

When I was young, I had implicitly integrated that engineering was a discipline for men. So, when I decided to go to university, I rather oriented myself towards science. Indeed, both my mother and my stepmother were medical doctors, and therefore, science seemed like something I could do, as a woman.

I studied geography and then geomatics at university. There were not many women and sexism was very present: it has always been a struggle to have other students recognise that my excellent grades were not due to the fact that I was wearing a dress, but to the fact that I was a really good student … But now, here I am, working as an engineer in aerospace!

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

I find research quite challenging for various reasons.

First, the PhD topic: there is a huge pressure on researchers to complete a PhD, both from society and in the academic field. Dropping the PhD without finishing is still perceived as a failure, even though no one would ever push you to continue a job in which you would feel miserable if it was not labelled a ‘PhD’.

Second, research in my field is still very male-dominated. As a result, it is not rare to attend manels (panels with only male participants) at conferences. Similarly, we often happen to be the only women in our research groups.

Even though many initiatives exist to encourage women to join STEM fields, there is a strong affinity bias that remains which practically excludes women from many positions (either as panellists in conferences or from managing positions in institutions and academia).

I hope to contribute to changing this, together with other women in aerospace. Indeed, many networks exist in which we actively work towards creating a more welcoming environment for women and gender minorities in STEM.

For instance, I am active as coordinator of a research group on the topic of visibility of women experts for Women-in-Aerospace Europe. I also co-founded a network at DLR for women and gender minorities which today has more than 450 members. We have a very privileged relationship with DLR’s board and with our diversity management: we report the issues that we are facing and together, we work on putting in place efficient solutions to improve our working conditions.

How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

I try to be visible. I post a lot on social media. I give talks and workshops, and I participate in podcasts. I think it is very important to make science accessible to a larger audience in a time where some people are still considering that climate change is a myth. For this reason, I am very glad to contribute to your journal with this interview!

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