Simonetta Di Pippo is Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the main United Nations entity dealing with outer space issues.
What do you do on an average work day?
At the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), we work to bring the benefits of space to all humankind by being a capacity-builder, a global facilitator, and the gateway to space in the United Nations. This all keeps me and my team very busy!
On any given day I could be meeting with diplomatic representatives, space agencies, other UN entities or the private sector about a range of space and United Nations-related topics. I have a lot of internal management, project team and staff meetings to ensure UNOOSA and our activities, like our capacity-building activities and training events, run smoothly.
I also do a lot of outreach by speaking at conferences and events about our activities and important topics like the space for sustainable development, or conducting institutional capacity-building in non-space-faring countries to help them develop access to space and its benefits.
UNOOSA serves as the secretariat to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space [COPUOS], so I am heavily involved with the Committee, its Bureau and its delegates during its annual session and those of its two subcommittees – Scientific and Technical, and Legal.
A major focus for both UNOOSA and COPUOS at the moment is the upcoming UNISPACE+50, which will be a special session of COPUOS in June 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. It will also be an opportunity for the international community to set out the future course of international space cooperation. Needless to say, UNISPACE+50 is a major focus for us at the moment!
What did you study at school? And after high school?
As a child, I had a strong interest in science. I was never a hundred percent set that I wanted to pursue a STEM [science, technology, engineering, maths] field, but I always knew it could be an option.
When it came time to choose what I wanted to study at university, I decided I wanted a subject that would constantly challenge me and that would give me a lot of space to remain curious. So, I chose physics.
I quickly became fascinated. The subject was of course challenging but incredibly stimulating and exciting, as new theories and studies on the universe are consistently being discovered. I dove deeper into these exciting subjects by focusing on Astrophysics and became passionate about the subject.
In 1984, I received my Master’s degree in Astrophysics and Space Physics from La Sapienza University in Rome, Italy. There were 300 students in my class at the beginning, of which 50% were women. By the time we reached the time of our thesis defence, only 10% of the students were women.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, having an education in astrophysics has provided me with a strong foundation to understand the complexities of the topics we deal with in the global space community.
My background of more than two decades of developing collaborative space projects to explore the solar system and live and work in space also helps me advocate for the benefits of space science, technology and exploration for all. This, combined with my leadership and managerial experience, provides me with the skills and expertise I need to lead my Office and support international cooperation on space issues. I really enjoy combining those skills in my job.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
The messages I would send out to the younger generations, regardless of the field they want to pursue a career in, would be to work hard, be committed, be part of an innovation process, and contribute to the future of humanity.
Each one of us has a different balance of abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, but it is up to you to take advantage of your skill set to achieve your goals and a better society.
And in whatever field you pursue, you must remain resilient. Resilience is key. Everyone’s career and lives have their ups and downs, and if I did not remain confident in my own abilities and worked hard, I would not be where I am today.
Know your strengths and work hard to follow what you want!
What are some of your career highlights so far?
I received a letter from the President of the Italian Republic in 2006, and I was so touched that before opening the letter, I actually spent some time just looking at the envelope. After finally reading it, I was surprised and delighted because the letter invited me to be knighted by the President at his historic residence! It was truly a life-changing, surreal moment to be knighted because I feel that it was not only an important recognition of my career but also an important moment for the recognition of women in science.
Another exciting moment in my career in 2008 was when I discovered that asteroid 21887 was named after me! I was looking for something else, and I found my name by chance in the Solar System! The International Astronomical Union named the asteroid “dipippo” in recognition of my commitment in supporting the exploration of the solar system and space activities. When I think about the fact that my name is going around in the main asteroid belt, I feel incredibly proud! It gives me this constant feeling that I am part of space and that I have a concrete role in this effort of discovering new boundaries and going beyond the limits of planet Earth.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand and other countries?
At UNOOSA, we use space science and technology to improve lives around the world. For example, one of our programmes, UN-Spider is a disaster risk reduction programme where we help countries use space data and satellite imagery to prepare for and respond to disasters.
We also promote and facilitate the use of space science, technology and applications to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, such as monitoring climate change, mapping diseases, enabling smart cities and transportation, and more. There are so many benefits of space technology, and when nations can access and use them, they can actively create better, more sustainable societies for their citizens.
New Zealand can help us advocate this, especially in its leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region. Many people are unaware of the direct and indirect applications of space science, and participating in science, on any engagement level, is an important first step in addressing many global challenges.
Furthermore, space is the common domain of all humankind and facilitates international cooperation. For decades, countries that may disagree on some issues on Earth have still worked together on space activities for scientific progress and to better understand the universe around us. While we may disagree on Earth, what we can achieve together in space – and indeed any scientific field – is inspiring. In our work we call this “space diplomacy”, and it has been great to see New Zealand’s commitment to this as the most recent member of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Diversity brings people with different backgrounds, different skill sets, and different approaches to solving problems and overcoming challenges. In the space sector, diversity is particularly valuable because it is a field that is seeking every day to redefine what is possible, and therefore needs the depth and breadth that comes with diversity.
It is disappointing that in the 21st century and in fields like the space sector, which is known for breaking boundaries, we are still not making the most of what women have to contribute. While there is an encouraging improvement, women’s contributions and potentials are still not fully utilized.
This topic is incredibly important to the United Nations, UNOOSA and me, and that is why we are creating the Space for Women project. We want to advocate STEM education for women, especially in developing countries, and improve gender mainstreaming in the space sector.
In the space community, we collect the best talents because individual merit propels humanity forward. To do so, we need to use all the science champions we have, both men and women. Indeed, we should do the same in all fields – merit should be all that counts.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.View all profiles