Christina Toldbo is a PhD student at DTU Space, the National Space Institute, and has just been awarded the Amelia Earhart Fellowship 2021 by Zonta International!

Congratulations on receiving this award!

Please tell us about your research and why is it important.

I work on developing navigation methods and instrumentation for space exploration. In particular, I work with optical methods, which means I work with cameras and image analysis. Developing this technology means spacecraft can be more autonomous and perform increasingly complex tasks further from Earth. Some of the applications of the research I am involved in are precision landing on the Moon, formation flight and tracking and rendezvous with un-cooperative objects such as space debris or an asteroid.

What are your plans and what are the possibilities that this grant opens for you?

For now, my plan is to finish my PhD and learn as much as I possibly can. I hope to be able to conduct my external research stay in USA at a NASA center, providing Covid-19 will allow me to travel this winter, and this grant allows me to fund parts of this stay.

Where have you studied and which positions have you held before your current one?

I have a master’s degree in physics from University of Copenhagen (mostly focused on astronomy and planetary physics but also quite a bit of science communication/education). I wrote my master thesis on life support systems in Stuttgart at the Institute for space systems. After that I worked briefly as an IT consultant, before moving to the Netherlands to work for the European Space Agency ESA as a young graduate trainee.

How did you choose the field of physics you are now specialized in?

I have always tried to explore what I found interesting at the moment, and coincidentally, what I find interesting appears to have space “exploration” in common. After having studied astronomy, I became interested in the engineering aspect of space exploration and especially after working at ESA I got a much better overview of the space industry and discovered that the field that I am currently in existed. I am happy I worked for three years before returning to academia to do a PhD because it meant I had a much better idea of the direction I wanted to go professionally. When I started studying physics, I was not interested in engineering, so my interests have evolved, and I think they will continue to do so.  

What motivated you to study physics?

Interestingly, I did not like physics much before starting my physics studies at University of Copenhagen (I only took B-level physics in high school). I attended an open house for chemistry at the university but heard a lecture by Anja C. Andersen about what “nothing” was and after that I was hooked on studying physics. I think I chose it because it is such a wide field and it deals with some of the most fundamental questions, while providing plenty of opportunities to travel and explore many other interesting research fields.

Did you have a role model or mentor? If so, what inspiration did you get from them?

Yes, several, but I would mention Anja C. Andersen and Morten Bo Madsen in particular. Anja got me into studying physics and was a prominent role model of a successful woman in physics, who was also a keen science communicator and was actively working with both research and outreach. Morten was my bachelor and thesis supervisor, and he was open and supportive of collaborative projects, first with DTU Space (where I wrote my bachelor) and later Stuttgart University. Both Anja and Morten have always been exceptionally kind towards me and given me opportunities to develop both professionally and personally.

What advice would you give to young people (in particular women and minorities) who would like to pursue a career in science?

Don’t be afraid to try things out. You don’t have to feel like a scientist or base your identity on it. Science is many things and so is research. If you like, try to find your own path and try to not worry about having to specialize in a specific field. Take your time and take a break if you need one, follow trails that might not lead to anything at first glance and explore different research fields and ways of working.