Reaching For the Stars: WeTalk with Swiss Space Researcher Eleonore Cassandra Poli

WeTalk. Pop Culture. Swiss-Made is a social media campaign of the Embassy of Switzerland in the United States. WeTalk promotes the diversity of Swiss culture and innovation by featuring prominent Swiss stakeholders from these fields. Sharing perspectives from artists, athletes and entrepreneurs, WeTalk provides its audience with fascinating insights into the diversity of contemporary Swiss culture. Watch Eleanore’s 1-min WeTalk interview here!

Eleonore Poli, 2021.

Following World Space Week, an international celebration of science and technology, and how they contribute to the betterment of the human condition, the Embassy decided to take a deeper dive into its 2021 theme “Women in Space.” When you think of Switzerland, space might not necessarily be the first topic that springs to mind. However, with its two Federal Institutes of Technology (EPFL in Lausanne, and ETH in Zurich), vibrant start-up community, and active participation in European Space Agency programs, Switzerland punches above its weight in the field of space exploration and technology. Furthermore, Switzerland and the United States have long been close collaborators on research and innovation in space. For example, Claude Nicollier, the first Swiss astronaut, went on several missions with NASA in the 1990s and remains an active member of the space research community.

Where does Switzerland currently stand in the field of space research? What does it take to become an astronaut? How and in what way are women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) influencing the field? The Embassy recently sat down with Eleonore Cassandra Poli, a Swiss Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, to get her insights.

Eleonore — who has Swiss, British, Italian, and French roots — was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1995. Passionate about science since she was very young, she attended both EPFL and ZHAW (Zurich School of Applied Sciences) obtaining her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from ZHAW in 2018. She then went on to pursue her master’s in materials and metallurgy from the University of Cambridge, and stayed for a Ph.D. in material sciences and engineering starting in January 2019. Eleonore studies how metals react in extreme conditions, notably conducting experiments with turbines, to see how resistant these materials are and analyze their resistance to evaluate the ways in which they can be improved.

Eleonore’s dream? To become an astronaut. This led her to serving as an “analog astronaut:” a future astronaut who participates in training missions designed to replicate conditions in space as closely as possible, putting small teams into “survival mode” for a week, during which physical and mental preparation are key. Eleonore’s training projects have included the Asclepios mission in Switzerland, where she was also crew commander. Analog astronauts are chosen based on their interest in space, scientific excellence, experience in harsh environments, teamwork and leadership skills, as well as resilience. Fun fact: the candidates were also interviewed by Claude Nicollier himself!

Eleonore Poli, 2021.

Physical preparation is crucial for future astronauts, and Eleonore has always been a keen athlete. She recently participated in a half Ironman triathlon competition, consisting of a 1.2-mile (1.9 km) swim, a 56-mile (90 km) bicycle ride and a half-marathon (13.1-miles, 21.1 km). Outside her research, Eleonore plays the piano (which she began when she was three) and enjoys sharing her interests with others, including participating in university discussion groups to exchange on different topics, notably the Cambridge Philosophical Society and the Mars Society UK.

Might Eleonore become the first Swiss woman in space? Time will tell. She told us, although it would be an honor, her focus is on helping to bring more visibility to women in STEM and inspiring others to pursue their dreams. To get to know Eleonore a bit better, the Embassy recently sat down with the Swiss researcher over video chat to talk about what attracted her to space, the place of Switzerland in the contemporary space industry, and why exploring space can help us better understand and protect life on earth.

Swiss Embassy: When did you start being interested in space?
Eleonore Poli: As a child, I was fascinated by engineering — I loved submarines and wanted to be an astrophysicist or engineer. Later on, I wanted to become a pilot and graduated from high school with a math-physics diploma. I started studying material science and engineering at EPFL, knowing I could work in aerospace (but also different fields) with a degree like that. I went to every conference that was held by the European Space Agency, aerospace engineers, pilots, astronauts, and astrophysicists. I got an internship at the Swiss aircraft company Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. and did my bachelor thesis on aerospace materials. The conferences were amazing and provided me with a thorough insight into aerospace opportunities in Switzerland.

Eleonore Poli during the Asclepios I mission in 2021. Eleonore Poli, 2021.

Swiss Embassy: What does Switzerland’s space industry look like in terms of the research and start-up landscape?
Eleonore Poli: There are a few large companies, focused predominantly on satellites and rockets, but a lot of space start-ups have also emerged in the last 10–20 years. Switzerland offers amazing working conditions and has a very strong innovative spirit with regard to start-ups in general. We’re also surrounded by countries that are very interested in aerospace, so in the Swiss spirit of collaboration, partnerships between Swiss companies and the European Space Agency are quite common.

Swiss Embassy: Can understanding and exploring space help us better understand and protect life on earth?
Eleonore Poli: Definitely! Studying space has helped humankind tremendously, and I believe it will continue to do so. During the early days of space exploration and the race to the moon, pilots and astronauts observed Earth’s atmosphere, and realized how thin it was and how fragile the planet looked. Earth observation via satellites, as well as comparison with other planets in our solar system, has helped in monitoring climate change and seeing outcomes of climate change on other planets. Satellites help measure Earth’s temperature, evaluating deforestation, as well as monitoring the ever-increasing dangers from tropical storms and other meteorological phenomena. Further, space exploration helped improve agriculture in harsh environments by optimizing oxygen and water consumption, creating a more resilient habitat and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Swiss Embassy: How would you explain your Ph.D. research to a 5-year-old?
Eleonore Poli: I look at a piece of metal, how it cracks under a lot of pressure, and how the crack spreads inside it. I try to understand why and predict when the crack will spread, so that the people using this material can intervene in time. To crack the material, I put it in an environment similar to that of a turbine, which means a very unfriendly environment.

Asclepios I mission analog astronauts. Top row, second from right: Eleonore Poli. Eleonore Poli, 2021.

Swiss Embassy: What did your service as an analog astronaut entail?
Eleonore Poli: During the analog space mission Asclepios I, we simulated a lunar base mission for eight days in a tunnel under the mountain of the Grimselpass in Switzerland. This meant that we followed schedules (also called flight plans) similar to that of actual astronauts: early wake-up, psychological evaluation, medical check-up, scientific experiments, exercise, and maintenance of the base. Our physical and mental preparation for the mission included training for all the experiments, physical conditioning, a psychological workshop, public speaking training, leadership training, and first aid and health training. Some of the most amazing parts of preparation involved extreme environment training: we had to dive into a frozen lake, sleep in tents in snowstorms, build an igloo, and find ways to get as much water as we could from snow. This was amazing mental and physical preparation, as it brought us together as a crew, and pushed us out of our comfort zone. Some of us had never done diving beforehand, so a helping hand from the rest of the crew was welcome. The team showed that it could work seamlessly together and it was a great starting point for the mission’s success.

Analog astronauts on Asclepios I mission, preparing for the night dives in Lac Moubra, Crans Montana, Switzerland. Eleonore Poli, 2021.

Swiss Embassy: What’s the most surprising experience you went through on this mission?
Eleonore Poli: I was surprised by how comfortable and meditative it is to dive under a frozen lake, at night, without any lights: how much trust I could give to people I barely knew, how amazing and beautiful it was, and how life can be so wonderful even when you are in ‘survival’ mode. Diving was probably the closest I could get to the feeling of being in space. Especially as it was under the ice and we were wearing wet suits. These keep you warm, but are very difficult to navigate in, giving you the feeling of being in a stiff penguin suit. You only hear your own breathing, you move very slowly, and it’s enchanting.

Swiss Embassy: Did these experiences better prepare you for life during Covid?
Eleonore Poli: Yes and no. We started preparing the mission only four months before the Covid pandemic hit. The mission was postponed several times as a result, so we got most of the training during or after the biggest lockdown. However, being part of Asclepios I helped me to create strong links with my crew and the rest of the team, providing wonderful friendships and support, even at home in my room. It also taught me I could do more with less, and always to seize the moment, because life is extremely unpredictable and you should grab every opportunity that comes to you to do the things you like.

At the finish line of the 2019 Half Ironman Triathlon in Weymouth, England. Eleonore Poli, 2021.

Swiss Embassy: With all you have going on, how do you manage your time during the week, particularly given your intensive sports regimen? What are your sporting goals?
Eleonore Poli: My Ph.D. hours are defined by how much work I want to get done that week, if the machines I use are available, if the samples are ready, and so on. It means I have to be extremely flexible, which is most of the time a great advantage for triathlon training. I sometimes have 3 days in a row with a double training, where I have to train early in the morning and again late at night. I love a (really late) night run, so it isn’t a problem for me at all. I also have an indoor bike trainer, which allows me to train at odd hours and when the weather is bad. Before Covid, I used to love running at midday, taking a shower, and getting back to work. When I used to be a runner only, I would push myself but also keep an eye on the rankings. With Ironman triathlons, where conditions are not always optimal, pushing myself and paying attention to my own performance is my only goal. I try to enjoy it as much as I can, and do the best I can. If I do get a good ranking, well, that’s a bonus!

In transition on the way to her bike at the Half Ironman Triathlon in 2019 in Rapperswil-Jona, Switzerland. Eleonore Poli, 2021.

Swiss Embassy: If you could play one piano piece in space, what would it be?
Eleonore Poli: Quasi una Fantasia by Beethoven because it’s a piece which has the serenity and floating sensation of space at the beginning, the giddiness of a meteorite shower and, finally, the seriousness of space and the focus needed to survive there. It’s just so beautiful and one of my favorite pieces to play.

Swiss Embassy: What do you tell the girls and women who want to study or work in STEM? Who are your female role models in the fields?
Eleonore Poli: I believe that every woman in STEM is a role model. I admire my former math and physics teachers, my colleagues, and fellow students too. I am inspired by their love of STEM and the strength they exhibit every day, and in this, they are my role models. I believe that if you surround yourself with kind and admirable people, full of dreams and passion, you do not need a role model, but just to be attentive to their wisdom.