From Stones to Space: A Journey in Earth Observation


Maral Bayaraa, originally from Mongolia and later the UK, is a PhD researcher at the University of Oxford and a senior specialist in Earth Observation at the Satellite Applications Catapult. She originally planned to study arts and philosophy, but later decided to pursue geology, which eventually opened the door to examining Earth at the macro level from outer space. She shares with STEM4ALL her journey and the role models, moments of inspiration, and determination - with a little bit of luck - that shaped her path to STEM.

Can you share with us a bit about your upbringing and how you were first introduced to STEM as a potential career path?

I grew up in Mongolia, and moved to Europe with my mother as a teenager. My mother, Dr. Bazarragchaa Tsogt, won various scholarships to pursue her master’s degree in Germany and later her PhD in the UK, all while raising me on her student stipends. My grandmother, Dr. Khand Yondon, is a renowned scientist, who completed her PhD in paleontology in Moscow during the Soviet era.


Clearly you had some great role models in your mother and grandmother; how do you think having strong role models influences women who are interested in entering STEM fields? 

Absolutely, I have a lot of role models in my family and friends. Seeing that someone has already done it – whatever it may be, somehow makes it feel more reachable. Funnily, one of my role models always tells me to take their advice with a pinch of salt, because their advice is full of their particular bias from the background they come from.


Could you tell us about the  path that led you to your career?  What were some of the struggles you’ve faced at home, school, work, etc.? How have you confronted those challenges to stay the course? 

Although we have been launching satellites into space for decades, the space sector is evolving very fast. This means that the kinds of people and skills the sector needs today have become radically more diverse than what any of us could have imagined before. You can see this in the different skills that make up the companies I’ve worked in. In my team at the Catapult, we had a mix of engineers and scientists across software and telecommunications engineers, to physicists, earth scientists, and geographers. Another example is our user-centered-design team, historically made up of artists, architects, and industrial design engineers.

The people working in the space industry of today find themselves here in a very tangential way, full of fascinating twists and turns. I actually did not know I wanted to pursue Earth Observation (EO) as a career. I love to paint - I have from an early age. When I was younger, I had hoped to become an artist. I also liked math and reading philosophy, so I thought a natural combination might be a degree in philosophy and economics. The summer before starting university, I worked as a translator on an American Museum of Natural History – Mongolian Academy of Sciences expedition to the Gobi Desert, co-led by the prestigious paleontologists Khand Yondon (my grandmother), Mark Norell, and Mike Novacek. I was fascinated by the way they could read the rocks. They told me about the ancient rivers and volcanoes where I stood and I was captivated by the idea that you could get paid to go on adventures like these. So, I took some time out to read more about earth sciences and ultimately ended up falling in love with geology.

Whilst studying geology at the University of Bristol, I accidentally came across an evening lecture discussing the use of hand-held spectrometers in mining. They explained how these devices shined light at rocks to understand what minerals they are made up of by the way light is reflected back. In their last slide, they mentioned how this may also be done on a larger scale from space. When I think back to that moment, it all gets a bit dramatized in my head! It felt like everything stopped and I had this rare moment of clarity, mixed with excitement and what you may call, a ‘vision’. It’s funny how once something is in memory-land, time can get so twisted, and everything feels exaggerated. I had been spending weeks walking around trying to map the rocks of a tiny area, but now with space technology I could see myself mapping out whole countries just from my laptop. I was determined to find out more about this new exciting field. For my masters thesis, I explored this topic by bringing together my incredible supervisors Matt Watson (an expert in atmospheric remote sensing), Frances Cooper, and Orolmaa Demberel (geology lecturers specializing in metal deposits). After my masters, I went to work for Airbus Defence and Space before joining the Catapult and pursuing my PhD at the University of Oxford.


What are your favorite aspects of your job?

As a scientist involved in the development of space technology and AI, I feel that these technologies have a critical role to play in addressing some of the most pressing issues of today here on Earth, including addressing the climate emergency, ensuring food security, and metal resources. I find a lot of meaning in that. I like to think of satellites and EO as ‘macro-scopes’ floating around the Earth. Just like the way microscopes have given us insight into the world on the tiny, ‘micro’-scale and helped solve many diseases, EO macro-scopes are helping improve our understanding on the large scale. Satellites were one of the first instruments that helped quantify and bring attention to the changing climate. And this was just recently recognised in Antarctic glaciers being named after satellites!



What are some of the challenges around being a woman in your field? How have you overcome these challenges, and what has been the most helpful support for you?

I started working in STEM fresh out of my bachelors degree studies, so I feel that I got my share of ‘-isms’ early on. Unfortunately, there can always be someone somewhere to hold something against you, whether it’s your gender, age, race, or whatever (but this is equally true for the opposite; there will also always be people who will love and support you no matter what!). So, it is critical that we develop a level of immunity and ways of dealing with these hurdles when you face the ‘-isms’. For instance, it is important to not let them push you into victimization; rather, you must resist, fight, and invest heavily in your personal development.

This is actually a field of exciting research, with fantastic academics like Prof. Pfeiffer at Stanford, who teaches and writes books on how to get things done, despite all the disadvantages that may be stacked against you. From his books on power, the points that had the biggest impact on me were, ‘get out of your own way’ and ‘break the rules’.

For example, it is not always straightforward to balance professional development with the priorities of the organization you work for. When I realized I needed to develop a deeper expertise through a PhD, the common advice I got from both academia and industry was that I would have to choose my job or the PhD path. But I found a way to make it work for me - I guess you could call it, making your own rules. I have been working as a Senior Earth Observation Consultant at the UK government’s innovation and technology hub, the Satellite Applications Catapult throughout the whole duration of my PhD. And I feel that I got the best of both worlds by making both work for me. Of course, dedication and hardwork aren’t always enough; sometimes you need a bit of luck. I am grateful to my family, close knit network of friends, mentors, and supervisors who have supported me, as well as my industrial fellowship from the 1851 Royal Commission - these were the keys to making my goals a reality. And in 2023, I received an award at COP28 in the category of Data Science and AI, from the Prototypes for Humanity, which has opened incredible new opportunities.


What do you think needs to happen to enable more women to go into STEM careers in your country? 

I think we are on the right track. There are incredible new initiatives coming up, like giving people ‘parental leave’, instead of maternity leave. If both men and women can take this extended time out of work, then it helps reduce the burden on women.


How have you balanced your professional and personal life? Do you see this as an obstacle for women in STEM?

Again, this is another area of active, exciting research! It is really worth investing some time in understanding what tried and tested methods are out there for getting more done in less time, so you can have more time to spend on other parts of your life. Whilst famous scientists, like Carl Jung needed isolation and built themselves solitary towers for their deep focused work, others believe in open offices and constant free flow of ideas and innovation. Of course, no one size fits all, so you have to find what works for you! The literature on this topic is really wide, but I would recommend books such as Angela Duckworth’s Grit and Cal Newport’s Deepwork.


Where do you think your country sits in comparison to others in gender equality in STEM?

On the global scale, I think both the UK and Mongolia are doing relatively well for women in STEM. In the case of Mongolia, this is probably due to the fact that historically, Mongolian queens and princesses always had big roles in co-ruling the country. In a nomadic culture, everybody has to pull together, so there is no real space for inequality.

I feel the current problems in both countries are higher up, with a lack of women right at the top in leadership positions.


What is your advice to women still unsure of whether STEM is for them?  What is your advice to women who feel excluded at work or at university?

STEM is changing so fast - the kinds of people and skills it needs today are radically more diverse than the ones any of us could have imagined before. So it is okay if you are unsure of STEM and where you are going. You can often find your way back to STEM if that’s what you want. For example, two of the best AI practitioners and teachers are a couple called Jeremy Howard and Rachel Thomas. Jeremy has a degree in philosophy, not computer science. And Rachel Thomas has a PhD in Mathematics.

I think the key message to school age girls is that they should try to keep doing STEM subjects at school, even if they do not think they want to do STEM in the future. If ever they do change their mind, no doors are closed for them. I was lucky that I kept studying Mathematics and Further Mathematics at school despite wanting to study art or philosophy at University. In the end, I ended up studying Geology at University of Bristol, which required at least two maths or science A-levels for eligibility.

Although, transitioning from one field to another can be very rewarding, there are some very difficult times you need to persist through, especially at the beginning. In my case, I transitioned from Geology to remote sensing and now in this multi-disciplinary intersection of all these fields, plus machine learning and geotechnics. Getting my ‘feet in the door’ was much harder than if I pursued a more linear, standard career path. But now, I actually find a lot of competitive advantage to having pursued a less standard path.



Maral Bayaraa is a member of the STEM4ALL STEMinist network. You can read more inspiring stories, find employment and education opportunities, and discover useful resources by exploring the STEM4ALL platform.