Alumni

Honorary Graduate profile - Jeremy Curtis

I have never been aware of many LGBTQ+ people in the space sector, but I think this has been due to reticence about bringing personal matters to work. I have been out at work for many years and cannot recall a negative reaction from a colleague. I talk about my husband and take him to work social events and he is always greeted with enthusiasm by my workmates.

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Huge congratulations on being awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Sciences from Queen Mary back in 2017. Why were you awarded this honorary degree and what did it mean to you to receive such recognition?

This was the most wonderful and unexpected thing. You work away at the things you think are important, but rarely have a chance to find out if anyone else has noticed. To be recognised with an award from such a respected university is quite overwhelming.

The citation was for work in space exploration and education. For many years I worked on building support for microgravity research and human space exploration – both were areas which the UK had little interest in. But after coordinating research interest groups and running several major reviews with serious academics, industry leaders and government policy experts, we finally have an active programme supporting microgravity research, we have a Briton in the European Space Agency astronaut corps and major involvement in missions to the Moon and Mars.

I moved over from exploration to education at the UK Space Agency in time to lead the education programme to support Tim Peake’s mission to the ISS. I thought it was obvious that there would be huge interest in his mission in schools and among the public – but it took a lot of persuasion to release enough money to run a serious campaign. In the end our team managed to support over 30 different education projects engaging well over 2 million young people over the mission. While all were linked to science and engineering, we used fitness, drama, literacy, food, computing and even horticulture to reach new audiences. The biggest of these was the Rocket Science project, run by the RHS with 600,000 pupils growing rocket seeds that had been to the ISS and then making scientific measurements to see if they could detect any difference from those that stayed on earth (they could, but it was tiny). The Destination Space project ran in 21 science and discovery centres around the whole of the UK, with around 2 million young children eventually meeting experts and joining in workshops and shows (and bringing the grand total reached across all the projects to nearer 3 million).

You currently juggle many different hats and you have had an extensive career to date. What does your current role as Head of Education and Skills at the UK Space Agency involve? How has your work helped shape government policy?

My main job is to use space as an inspiring context for teaching and learning at all ages, as well as to ensure the supply of skilled workers for employers in the space sector. We use space to encourage interest in STEM subjects and to show how studying them increases opportunities for young people - even now this seems to be a hard message to get across, but space and dinosaurs tend to be top of the list for young people. The dinosaurs may be gone, but we have plenty more space to explore! And the space sector in the UK is growing fast, with big ambitions for the future. These ambitions will come to nothing if we don’t have the people to do the work – so we are working with careers advisors to showcase the huge range of jobs, from climate researchers to communications engineers, and from planet scientists to satellite operators. Now that the UK is about to begin launching its own satellites, we even need rocket scientists – the ultimate cliché! These people all need specialist skills – so we are working with many different organisations to get training for them whether they are new graduates, experienced workers transferring to the space sector, or professionals looking to increase their knowledge.

What have been some of your career highlights to date?

Apart, of course, from getting my degree from Queen Mary, I think the many elements of the Principia campaign have been the most exciting. Highlights included meeting the Queen (and most of the Royal Family) on our stand at the Chelsea Flower Show during the launch of Rocket Science and introducing ten of the most remarkable young people from some of our projects to Teresa May at a reception for Tim Peake at No 10 on her third day as Prime Minister.

I also organise the UK Space Conference, which has grown from 500 attendees in 2011, to 2000 people over three days in 2019. It is hard to visualise that many people together, but when you look out across 650 people at the conference dinner and realise that they have all paid to come to your party, it is an amazing feeling.

I married the friend I first confided in! We’ve been together now for almost 28 years and our families and friends were thrilled to come to our Civil Partnership in 2006 and then our wedding (or ‘upgrade’, as we call it) ten years later. That first scary step out of the closet has completely changed my life in a way I could never have expected when I was wrestling with difficult thoughts as I was growing up.

What words of advice would you give to current students and recent graduates from Queen Mary who aspire to build a career in the space industry like yourself?

We need all types of people, but three quarters of workers in our sector have a degree, so you’re already on the right track. Don’t expect jobs to be labelled ‘space’ necessarily – we have people working on measuring sea level and ice thickness, people designing systems to track cargo and help farmers apply fertilizer and irrigation only where it is needed, and others monitoring natural disasters and providing emergency communications. They are all using data from satellites, so understanding how to interpret data to solve real problems on earth is important. This usually means having interests across several different areas, as well as being enterprising and good at communicating. Space is very international, so languages are always useful. And we even need people who know how to build and operate satellites (about a quarter of the people in our sector are involved in this).

How diverse is the space sector?

I’m excited to have been able to support a large survey of the space sector, just completed by the Space Skills Alliance for the Space Growth Partnership. The results are still being analysed, but 10.4% of respondents identified as LGBTQ+ (and twice that in the 18-24 age range) with more than half out to their colleagues. 1% identified as trans. Personally I have never been aware of many LGBTQ+ people in the sector, but I think this has been due to reticence about bringing personal matters to work. Now people are realising that they need to bring their whole self to work to give their best and so people are more open. I have been out at work for many years and cannot recall a negative reaction from a colleague. I talk about my husband and take him to work social events and he is always greeted with enthusiasm by my workmates.

What does LGBTQ+ History Month mean to you and why do you think it is important that we acknowledge the contributions of LGBTQ+ people throughout history and in present times?

It is so easy to forget how difficult life was until very recently. I didn’t come out till I was over 30 because I was afraid what people would think. I feel lucky to be alive now with equal rights and supportive friends and family – but I owe it all to those who fought to get those rights. Such discrimination may seem unthinkable now, but it took a colossal effort to overcome and there are many places around the world where it continues and even gets worse. And we still hear of people at home who suffer. We need the lessons from history of inspiring figures to make sure we don’t slip backwards. It’s also really important to show people from other cultures elsewhere that we do not pose a threat, and sharing how our culture has adapted and benefited from its LGBTQ+ members is hugely valuable in making this argument.

Are there any LGBTQ+ historical figures you wish more people knew about? Or any contemporary LGBTQ+ role models?

When I was growing up, the only people who were obviously gay were also flamboyant and camp. So for me, the people who impressed me were the ones who just got on with doing their thing really well. Take Lord Browne, who ran BP for many years – he managed to remain dignified when his sexuality was revealed, and his reputation dragged through the courts in a way that would not have happened if he had been straight. And Tom Daley, who decided he wasn’t going to be outed by the press but took control and did it himself in his own way.

Generally, what do you think still needs to be done to give greater equality and representation to the LGBTQ+ community?

Personally, I think the most constructive thing we can do is to try to help people who find it hard to accept LGBTQ+ people by being visible, and by not looking to be affronted by the odd thoughtless or ill-informed comment. At times I think there is a tendency to seek offence where none is intended. Acceptance will come with understanding and familiarity – hence the need for visibility.

Are there any myths or misconceptions about the LGBTQ+ community you’d like to bust for our audiences reading this profile?

I find I am fascinated by stereotypes – and in particular why we so often fit them. We each share some characteristics of familiar stereotypes (I can’t bear football, but love cocktails), but not others (not keen on Barbra Streisand, trained as a mechanical engineer). In my experience LGBTQ+ people are probably no more nor less diverse than the rest of the population, though the struggles they have often been through mean that they may be tougher, more independent-minded and have come to terms with being a bit different. However, this is little use when you meet someone new – you can’t use the stereotype to predict what they will be like, you just have to get to know them to find out, and then share their similarities and relish their differences.

Finally, do you have any words of advice for people reading this profile who might identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community but who have not had the courage to express themselves openly yet, based on your own experiences of coming out later in life?

I still look back and wonder what took me so long. Many of my friends had worked it out before me, but almost no one was negative and very many went out of their way to show their support. A few people found it hard, but it showed who my real friends were. It may sound like a cliché, but once I felt I didn’t need to pretend any more I found I could really be me with everyone I knew. This was such a huge relief - I didn’t realise what a weight I’d been carrying round for so long. I decided to confide first in a close friend that I knew was gay and then worked up through family and a few other friends. It is scary, even when you are pretty sure your mother will stick with you, but each time it got easier as I knew I had the support of the people I’d told already.

Now I find that society is even more welcoming. Most young people in this country have never known a time when it was OK to be prejudiced and I know that if I ever encounter any then the law is on my side.

Oh yes, and I married the friend I first confided in! We’ve been together now for almost 28 years and our families and friends were thrilled to come to our Civil Partnership in 2006 and then our wedding (or ‘upgrade’, as we call it) ten years later. So that first scary step out of the closet has completely changed my life in a way I could never have expected when I was wrestling with difficult thoughts as I was growing up. So, find someone you are sure will be supportive, pick your time, take the first step and don’t look back. There will be tough days as you come to accept yourself, but if you are like me then you will have no regrets.

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Jeremy or engage him in your work, please contact Nicole at n.brownfield@qmul.ac.uk.