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Dr Jaclyn (Jackie) Bell is a theoretical particle physicist at the University of Liverpool. She was awarded the John Lennon Memorial Scholarship during her PhD studies.

Jackie, who has had a lifelong fascination with space, was selected to appear on the BBC2 programme ‘Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?’ She appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss the surprising things that happen when you take on the challenge of a lifetime – and what she’s learned along the way.

6 things that happen when you’re chosen to train as an astronaut

  1. After the elation, comes the panic
    Ever since watching the BBC TV programme ‘Red Dwarf’ as a child, Jackie has dreamed of going into space. It was after finishing her PhD, when she had some time on her hands, that Jackie saw a recruitment advert for a BBC2 programme about training would-be astronauts. “I thought, ‘let’s give that a go’,” she says.

    With the programme wrapped in secrecy, Jackie’s application process had to remain unknown from even those closest to her. She received the news she had been accepted just before giving a presentation about the solar system at the Science Museum in London.

    “It was the most exciting show I’ve ever presented,” she remembers. “I was on an absolute high.

    “But then a couple of hours later, I started to panic, and I thought, ‘oh my God, I don’t know if I’m ready, I don’t know if I have all the skills’… And so, mass panic.”
  2. You meet an extraordinary peer group
    Going into space is not a ‘normal’ job, so it’s little surprise Jackie’s fellow contestants were all high achievers. Among them was a member of Great Britain’s bobsleigh squad, a cancer surgeon, a dentist who is also an endurance athlete, an RAF pilot, and an aerospace engineer.

    She admits: “I just felt really under-qualified and really not special at all. Straightaway I felt like I was the weakest link… I don’t think I’ve ever met so many accomplished people.”
  3. Hard work and dedication is validated
    As the first person in her family to go to university, Jackie’s previous success had always been built on hard work: for example, she had funded her education by juggling part-time jobs alongside her education.

    The lecturer who later became her PhD supervisor was aware of Jackie regularly dashing off when he turned his back towards the end of one of his classes.

    “As he turned back, he’d just see me running out of the door to make it to my waitress job in the city centre. I’d run straight down the hill and work in the Town Hall for a few hours, then run back up the hill.”
  4. You discover relevant skills can come from anywhere…
    Jackie’s mathematical expertise, which was developed through years of detailed study, was one of the key factors that helped her succeed in the show’s early challenges.

    She believes two other qualities helped her progress: her ability to work in a team, and her trust in others to be in the right place at the right time. But these skills did not come from higher education.

    Instead, she credits her decision to join the University of Liverpool’s cheerleading team. Initially, she did so to make more female friends, but at one point found herself in a gruelling, 20-hours-per-week training routine.. “It was the best decision that I’d made,” she says.
  5. … and that fears can be overcome
    Throughout the programme’s selection process and filming, Jackie had kept a major secret: she couldn’t swim. Eventually, her cover was blown in a task named ‘underwater helicopter survival experience’.

    She remembers: “I saw those words and thought, ‘I don’t like any of those.’ … This is my worst nightmare.”

    In the dramatic scenes that followed, the programme host, Commander Chris Hadfield, had to rescue her from drowning. But her determination meant she attempted the task three more times – and eventually succeeded. “I somehow just found the strength to do it,” she says.
  6. Your actions can impact more than just yourself and those around you
    Jackie left the competition after her lack of swimming ability prevented her from completing another task. However, it was not without gain.

    She reflects: “A lot of people have been inspired by that moment of me being stressed in the water to go out and learn to swim. Although I saw it as a failure at the time, I do see it as an achievement now because I’ve inspired other people to go out and learn something new, which I’m quite proud of.”

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

Are you ready to do something life-changing? Find out what a postgraduate qualification from the University of Liverpool’s online can do for you.

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