Meet data scientist, astrophile, author and virtual universe builder Mars Buttfield-Addison. A PhD candidate based in our Sandy Bay Tasmania office, Mars is applying machine learning methods to detect and track satellites and space debris.
Here, we talk about her career journey, the projects she's excited about, running a developer conference, and the single biggest thing that needs to happen to encourage more women to pursue a career in tech.
What led you to choose a career in tech?
My career in tech began when I enrolled in a Bachelor of Information and Communications Technology at University of Tasmania. I was 23, had been working odd jobs since leaving school at 15, and I was looking for a change. I quit my job, packed up my car, drove to Tasmania, and enrolled in the prerequisite Pathways Program at UTAS
Two things convinced me to study ICT.
I’d recently seen a talk online by game developer Sean Murray detailing their upcoming game No Man's Sky. This game had a theoretically infinite virtual universe, full of planets that were entirely crafted and populated by procedural generation algorithms, and Murray spoke about their design with extraordinary and infectious enthusiasm. It made me think that mathematics, in the hands of a computer scientist, was a force to behold.
Secondly, I had a 14-year-old brother who was obsessed with video games. He had been really struggling at school but showed a lot of interest in computers and how games were made, so I figured, ‘Maybe if I study computers, I'll be able to connect with him or even help him when he wants to study the same in the future.’
Even though I was an average computer user at best and had never written a line of code, I enrolled in ICT.
I fell completely in love with computing, and my brother went on to study Molecular Bioscience instead. Go figure.
What attracted you to join CSIRO’s Data61?
CSIRO is an iconic Australian institution that everyone has grown up hearing about. I hadn't really heard of Data61 until I met Professor Paulo de Souza.
Paulo and I were seated together at an event and we talked the whole time about the Bees with Backpacks project he and his team were working on. Paulo formerly designed sensors for space exploration and had travelled halfway across the globe to work at CSIRO.
“Which part of CSIRO?”
“Oh, what do they do?”
I was invited to visit CSIRO’s Data61 site up in Sandy Bay, which was perched in the forest overlooking UTAS’s campus. It was like a big treehouse full of geniuses. Everyone was lovely, their papers and posters proudly lined the hallways, and there were robots being built in the lab downstairs. It was awesome.
While studying ICT, computing had felt like a really insulated discipline, almost as if we were studying computers for computers' sake. During my degree, I quickly become disillusioned by the tech start up fad of applying tech solutions ineffectively to human problems the team didn't really understand.
But CSIRO’s Data61 was a place where they were applying technology to real-world problems and making a tangible difference. Their researchers were also directly collaborating with scientists in other fields across CSIRO to create algorithms or smart systems for forestry, aquaculture, climate, earth imaging, medicine, and more.
That blew my mind. I thought to myself, ‘This is the kind of tech I want to be in.’
Describe your professional background and the areas you specialise in
I’m a bit of a nebulous technologist and educator, but I primarily work on machine learning and Apple technologies. This includes app development, programming tutoring, and data science solutions development.
My machine learning domains have varied widely. From a public safety research project for the City of Hobart, to honours research in social media content analysis, an internship at Canva in design automation, and now a PhD looking at analysis methods in spacecraft and space debris tracking at CSIRO’s Data61.
I also help run an iOS developer conference called /dev/world in Melbourne each year and I’m a science author (Practical Artificial Intelligence with Swift <2019> and 2019>Practical Simulations for Machine Learning <2022>). 2022>
Share an example of a data and digital science project that you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of, and that has achieved positive impact? What was the biggest lesson you took away from the experience?
Writing Practical AI with Swift is what I’m most proud of. I was in the middle of my honours degree when I wrote it and I spent the entirety of the short winter break writing over 20 apps and a bunch of code.
Since it was published, I’ve received semi-regular heartfelt emails from people all over the world telling me they’ve used it to learn or teach coding and the difference that made.
I get messages from young women technologists who felt empowered by figuring out how to do a particularly hard bit, and messages at Christmas from people who received the book as a gift. People tell me about the apps they have made, and the author of a library I used and complimented in the book even used the publication as support of his expertise in a VISA application.
The biggest lesson from that experience is if you love something, share it, and people will take what you made and make it so much more.
What are some of the projects you’re working on at Data61? What about them excites you?
The big one is my PhD project at CSIRO. It’s a collaborative project between two CSIRO business units: Data61 and Space and Astronomy.
I’m developing new software to run on the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) that enables the tracking of satellites and space debris 24/7. The growth of mass in orbit in the age of megaconstellations is outpacing our ability to scale tracking capacity.
However, if we can add functionality to existing sensors that are already in use for applications such as radio astronomy, we can dramatically increase the number of potential sensors that can be used for satellite tracking worldwide.
There are two key problems I’m working on. The first is that radio telescopes are made to look at deep space, so large interferometers effectively must be given the ability to go cross-eyed to observe so close to Earth.
The second is that they need to be able to track objects in Earth orbit without interruption to their deep space observations, so this is a kind of feasibility test to see how perturbing the effects of interlaced observation can be.
Alongside this work, a group of Data61 and CSIRO Space & Astronomy researchers who work on similar Space Situational Awareness (SSA) problems have been really great at involving me in what they're doing.
One of their members, Dr Hamed Nosrati, has been doing amazing work investigating another potential avenue for targeted tracking of spacecraft with ATCA, and the SSA group together has been doing feasibility studies that consider how CSIRO could best use each of its radio astronomy assets to contribute to monitoring space debris.
I'd love to say the thing that excites me most about that is the conservation of outer space, but it's tied with the excitement of working with such awesome radio scientists and being able to visit ATCA and see the awesome work astronomers are doing with it year-round.
In your opinion, what’s the single biggest change that needs to happen to encourage more women to pursue careers in tech?
People all over the world are working very hard on all the fronts I could identify as needing work: that tech can often be construed as difficult and sterile rather than creative and adaptable to your skills, that so much time has been spent talking about how it has been challenging for women in tech and sometimes that’s all young women hear about the sector, that more people need to see role models they identify with reach levels of success and seniority, and career competition disadvantages those who take time for pursuits such as parenting.
The slew of articles, papers and experiences that highlight how challenging it can be for women in the tech industry can understandably overwhelm young women who want to enter the industry.
Even if you move past all of this and enter the tech industry, you routinely hear tech bros try to justify gender inequality as ‘women are just inherently not as good at these things,’ or how hiring for diversity is ‘reverse sexism’.
Maybe it's not about making women—or gender diverse people, or any type of person really—want to be there, but about everyone else wanting them to be there.
The change that needs to happen is that the big players in the tech world must look to their employee bases, find those last holdouts with outdated views on what a technologist should look like and who are contributing to hostile workplace environments, and expel them from our midst.
How can colleagues, organisations and industries within tech better support and enable women?
In academic institutions, there are unfortunately a lot of systemic barriers that disproportionately affect women. These things are often not the fault of colleagues or even the employing institution, but they can be helped.
It's hard in academia because it can be very competitive, but I would encourage everyone to spend some time reflecting on those around them: on the roles and levels of seniority they have, the recognition they have received, and looking for disparities among them.
For example, if you work in a place that requires people to apply for promotions and a team member seems to not have advanced in a while despite good work, encourage them to apply or offer to support them with their application.
Keep an eye on awards you could nominate your peers for. Browse the staff directory when you're forming new teams, instead of just automatically partnering with people you've worked with before.
Take stock of administrative work resulting from projects and ensure balanced load-sharing. Find out if your organisation offers a mentorship program to early career professionals. Notice, and actively call out, exclusionary behaviours in the workplace.
What advice would you give to women and girls wanting to pursue a career in tech?
Absolutely do it! Knowing how computers work is a multi-purpose skill you can apply to virtually whatever problems matter most to you. It involves a kind of problem-solving that is incredibly satisfying when you fix or create something, and tech is one of the most flexible career paths in the world.