7 mins read 31 Oct 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Rizka Widyarini Purwanto

Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special.

Rizka Widyarini Purwanto - Research Associate at UNSW Canberra Space. Credit: Supplied.

In March each year, we not only celebrate International Women’s Day but we also enjoy learning about all the contributions women have made to society during Women’s History Month. Originally started in the US in 1987, it has in recent times, in part due to social media, become more well-known across the world. 

As a celebration of all the wonderful work, inspiration and support that women across our region do in the space sector, will be speaking to a new women in the Australian space community weekly, to uncover their stories and find out who inspires them. 

Rizka Widyarini Purwanto - Research Associate at UNSW Canberra Space

What is your role at UNSW Space?

I am currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra Space, led by Professor Russell Boyce. Prior to this role, I was a PhD student at the School of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) UNSW Sydney, applying machine learning (ML) and AI to develop a robust phishing detection system. 

The rapid progress of machine learning research in the past few years has brought many opportunities to help build detection and classification models in many areas, including space. 

At UNSW Canberra Space, I am involved in projects related to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) on satellite imagery and photometric light-curves, which are useful for many applications, for instance for space object recognition to prevent satellite collisions, to detecting smoke and bushfires.

How did you end up working in the space sector and what drew you to it?

Since I was little, I have found space to be mesmerising. I remembered looking at the night sky inside my dad’s car and being amazed by how the Moon seemed to be following around wherever we went. I was fortunate to have access to books and resources to learn more about the solar system and space in general. In middle school, my teacher informed me about the astronomy olympiad competition held by the Ministry of Education and encouraged me to participate. I decided to try participating without expecting to win but was surprised to be one of the medallists at the national round. 

The participants were brought to the Bosscha Observatory (in Bandung, Indonesia) to observe the sky as part of the test for the competition. Unfortunately, we did not have the chance to use the telescope at that time since the sky was cloudy, but it was still a memorable experience. It was the first time for me to visit an observatory and see large telescopes. I also made some friends during the competition, which made the experience even more memorable. 

When I finished high school, I did not think of pursuing a study in astronomy due to the limited career options in my home country. Even though I ended up studying computer science and engineering, my interest in space continued. I kept learning more about space in my spare time as an amateur space enthusiast. 

During the last year of PhD, I was actively searching for postdoc roles and found that there is a job opening at UNSW Canberra Space as a research associate for their AI for Space program. I did some research about the position and immediately applied since the project description seems really interesting. I honestly did not expect that my application would be processed further since my background was not in space. However, I was very excited that I ended up being accepted for the program.

What advice would you give to people looking to start their career in the Australian space Industry, whether they are new graduates or those looking to move their careers over?

Try to keep an eye on the available opportunities. As a graduate in computer science and engineering, I previously did not think that I could apply my background and do research in space. I found recently that space is such a broad and multidisciplinary domain that consists of people with various skills and backgrounds. 

If you find any opportunities that might be aligned with your skill set and background, do not hesitate to try applying for the role. Take chance and belief in yourself - you might be surprised!

Who have you met that has had the most impact on your career journey so far?

It is difficult to pinpoint the person that had the most impact on my career journey since I am fortunate to have met numerous colleagues and teachers who have supported and encouraged me in pursuing my career. I am also grateful for my support system, including my husband and friends, who have provided great support and encouragement in these past years of my career.

Margaret Hamilton in 1969, standing next to listings of software her and her MIT team produced for the Apollo project. Credit: MIT/Draper Lab; restored by A. Cuerden.

Which women in the history of the Space Industry do you look up to? What was it about their achievements that resonated with you?

I find Margaret Hamilton to be truly inspiring. She is a computer scientist from MIT who was involved in NASA’s Apollo moon landing mission. Writing codes involve making sure that the program that we write is free of bug. When working as a mobile app developer in my previous job, we could release new versions of applications when we find bugs or if we find that the app behaves differently than expected in specific cases.   

I would imagine that writing such code for a space mission would require rigorous testing since performing updates would not be that easy. It is also fascinating to think of how a small computer with limited computing resources (especially compared to technology nowadays) can help assist a moon landing mission. I think it is such a remarkable achievement.

What do you think are some of the issues faced by women in the space sector and how do you think they should be resolved?

Women are currently underrepresented in the space sector, and in STEM field in general. Being the only woman in the room can be daunting sometimes, especially when cultural background comes into play. The limited number of women also means that there are a limited number of female role models and mentors that might share similar personalities and challenges, to look up to and have discussions with. 

There are plenty of programs that encourage young females to pursue space and STEM nowadays, which highlight stories of female engineers and scientists. I am happy that there are more and more programs like this (including #HerSpaceAus), and hope that this would help in promoting space and STEM as an exciting career options for women. 

I also hope that programs like this would also support those who are already keen on pursuing STEM to hear more stories from other women in STEM regarding their career journey, and how they overcome some challenges they find in the field/industry that might be relatable to other women as well.

What are you most excited about in the coming years for the Australian Space Industry?

There are currently many challenges to building such prediction models using satellite imagery data, but I am looking forward to more applications of AI and ML to be used for preventing hazards and disasters which would be greatly beneficial for society.