UCL News


7 questions with Théophile Brochant de Villiers

17 July 2017

This week, meet Théophile Brochant de Villiers, a technician in the Department of Space & Climate Physics at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, located in the Surrey hills.

Seven questions with Théophile Brochant de Villiers He is also a UCL alumnus who has an MSci in Theoretical Physics and followed it up with an MSc in Space Science and Engineering. Theo has been working on UCL's first satellite 'UCLSat', focusing on cubesats - nanosatellites that are no bigger than a shoebox - which are great for doing in-situ measurements in the Earth's atmosphere.

1. What does your role involve and how long have you been at UCL?

I have been a member of staff at UCL for almost two years. I joined in June 2015. I am at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (or MSSL because it's a bit of a mouthful like my name), which is not on the main campus but in Surrey Hills.

It's a lovely place all year round and a very different experience to being in London. It's in the middle of the countryside, no Starbucks or McDonald's in sight and I get to drive everywhere which is great, as I am not a big fan of public transport.

MSSL is unique. Scientists, mechanical/electrical/software engineers, students and academics all co-exist in one ecosystem. An academic working on a science instrument only has to walk a few yards to talk to the engineer putting it together!

I worked on QB50, a cubesat mission which will do in-situ measurements in the Earth's atmosphere and a bit of re-entry research as well. Cubesats are nanosatellites, they are no bigger than a shoebox and have the advantage of being cheaper to design and launch. They are great for testing new ideas, designs and getting students involved with space hardware.

I worked on 'UCLSat', UCL's contribution to the QB50 fleet. My initial role was to work on the in-situ instruments that will go on those cubesats and to work on the MSSL Groundstation.

My role surpassed this as there was a lot of work on UCLSat. I got involved in the Assembly, Integration and Testing (AIT) of the whole cubesat and worked on every subsystem of UCLSat. It was fascinating. I am now part of the AIT Pancam team (the stereo camera that will sit at the top of the European Martian Rover Exomars).

2. What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

We were a small team working on UCLSat. This meant there was a lot of work and a lot of tasks that I wasn't necessarily trained for. So I learned everything on the job; this required being proactive, and not being afraid to seek out help around the lab. I got to know a lot of amazing scientists and engineers which I still regularly interact and work with. This is what I'm most proud of.

I also got to establish two-way communication between UCLSat and the MSSL Groundstation, I supervised the full assembly of the cubesat. I worked on the calibration of 10 science instruments which will be in Low Earth Orbit in a month.

I also drove to the Netherlands to supervise the integration of UCLSat into its deployer, the last step before putting it at the top of a launcher (the rocket that will propel it into orbit). It's been an amazing ride so far and I can't wait for what's coming next!

3. Why did you choose to study space science and engineering and how has it informed your career path?

I chose space science and engineering because I always had a passion for human space exploration and really wanted to work in that field. I got to work on a very interesting project: the Attitude Determination and Control System (ADCS) of a Cubesat. This is when I started my work on QB50. I got to use the work from my thesis in my current role at UCL.

I worked on a real mission while I was still a student, so it gave me a pretty good idea of what it would be like to work in the space industry. The group project I worked on was also excellent at giving students an idea of what it would be like to design a real space mission, and the challenges of working in a group.

4. What do you miss most from your time at UCL?

£1 pints of Carlsberg on Monday at UCLU! I don't think they do it anymore.

Also, the diversity of the people you get to meet; students from all over the world all studying very different subjects. You might be studying maths or physics, but you can easily meet people studying ancient history or anthropology (and vice versa)!

5. What was your first job straight out of university?

Being jobless for eight months… Well technically, I was told I could call myself a graduate for at least a year after I graduated so… I was a graduate!

I wasn't the most proactive graduate in the world at the time and I thought a job would just magically appear out of nowhere. When I finally woke up from that dream (nightmare), I went to the UCL Careers Service who explained to me that jobs don't just fall out of the sky.

After a lot of CV (re)writing, I found a job in IT in a start-up in London. The people I worked with were one of a kind and I am still in contact with them.

A bit later I was interviewed for a four months' work experience at MSSL. I was thrilled; it had always been my dream to work in the space industry. Almost two years later and I am still here.

6. What one piece of advice would you like to share with UCL students?

Do not have any expectations on what your experience at university should be. Don't get me wrong, UCL was a great experience, but I went in thinking "It's going to be the best time of my life", I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself because of that mindset. I was worried that everything after university would be downhill. Oh boy was I wrong!

My advice to students, just take things as they come, have a regular work schedule, join societies you like, hang out with people you like/admire. Be very picky about which individual projects and group projects you choose as this is, I think, the most interesting and important part of a degree. University might not be your cup of tea, and that's fine. It can still be a very enriching experience. Or you might absolutely love it!

7. Who would be your dream dinner guests?

John Young and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

John Young because he flew 2 Gemini missions (the predecessor of the Saturn V, the rocket that flew men to the moon), and then he flew the Saturn V, went to the moon twice and walked on it. After he'd done all this, he flew an oversized, kind of reusable space vehicle that had never been flown before and had absolutely no abort capabilities for the first 2 minutes of the launch (also known as the Space Shuttle). I'm sure he would have a lot of interesting stories to tell.

Arnie because he's Arnie.