How Geology Degree helped one graduate prepare for life in space

From studying rocks and meteorites to training be an astronaut, one Manchester graduate reveals how his decision to study Geology and Planetary Science was out of this world – and led to TV fame.

When Tim Gregory began his Undergraduate Degree in Physics at The University of Manchester, he knew almost immediately it wasn’t right for him. Switching to Geology with Planetary Science was one of the best decisions he ever made – and it’s a choice that’s set him on a fast track to space.

Tim is currently appearing on the BBC2 show Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?. The aim of the show is to undertake real astronaut training, and the winner will receive a reference from none other than former International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield. Two episodes in, Tim is among the top-performing competitors.

And this passion and drive all started at the University. Tim was already 10 weeks into his Physics degree when he made the decision to switch. He remembers how accommodating the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences was, even setting up catch-up classes for him to bring him up to speed with the rest of his new course mates. “That’s the thing about The University of Manchester; it’s an enormous university but it cares about the individual. It has such a homely feel,” he explains.

During the next four years, Tim’s tutors inspired him to push himself and achieve more than he ever thought possible. Dr Katie Joy was Tim’s supervisor during his Master’s project and helped him successfully apply for the Lunar and Planetary Science Internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Texas. Dr Joy also suggested getting his Master’s thesis – for which he achieved a first class – published, and guided him through this process. “She was absolutely amazing,” Tim remembers.

Thanks to the broad selection of options he had for his Master’s project, Tim was able to tailor it; ultimately choosing to study meteorites. This was a subject that had always fascinated him, but Tim says he had no idea you could make a career out of it until he enrolled on his degree course. “I didn’t know you could actually study meteorites. To have the chance to study them alongside the world experts working at NASA really opened the door to that passion,” he reveals.

From the cutting-edge equipment available to every student to the field trips, the opportunities at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences were perfect, according to Tim. He went on a geology field trip every year of his course, and reveals that it not only equipped him with valuable skills but also helped him bond with his course mates.

Tim’s time at The University of Manchester gave him the qualifications, skills and experience he needed to be handpicked by Chris Hadfield from thousands of applicants to the show. Studying here is something Tim is very proud of and makes a point of telling people. “I took pride in telling Chris Hadfield that I did my undergraduate degree at The University of Manchester. He knew of the university and the city. My time in Manchester set up the path I’m on now and led to this selection process,” he says.

And that path could end up taking Tim all the way to space. While he can’t share how he did in the show, he does say the reality of being an astronaut is something he has considered more seriously since finishing. “Becoming an astronaut used to be just an idle thought, but now I’ve had this insight into doing it for real. Now I think ‘why not?’ I can at least try,” he says.

So, what advice would Tim give to someone with a passion for science and geology? “I would tell them stay curious. Don’t forget why you got interested in science in the first place. Lots of people share your interest.”

And what does the future hold for Tim? Well after considering a career in academia, his astronaut training means he’s now not so sure. “As long as my job – whatever it turns out to be – involves science, lets me learn new things and to talk about science, I’ll be happy,” he reveals.  “Science is too important not to be part of our culture – and you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy it.”


Follow Tim's progress at 9pm Sunday on BBC 2.


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