A future full of possibilities

Karen Mascarenhas founded Mascarenhas PR public relations agency in 1992. Here, she reflects on the challenges of being a Ugandan child refugee, yet still being able to embrace science to fulfil a dream and a future full of possibilities.

My interest in aviation stemmed from an idyllic childhood - lying on our lawn in Uganda gazing skyward and wondering where aeroplanes headed to – maybe Egypt, maybe Greece? Aged seven, my first flight was exhilarating, taking me from Entebbe to Nairobi and onto Addis Ababa, Karachi and finally to Bombay. My final visit to Entebbe airport was terrifying - shrouded in darkness and surrounded by Amin’s gun-toting soldiers as we fled for our lives, desperate for a flight to freedom.

At school in London, I embraced the arts but focused on science as I was always curious about how things worked. A fascinating BSc (Hons) in Human Biology, at Surrey University covering anatomy, physiology, genetics, microbiology and biochemistry – including dissection of a human body, followed. What has this to do with aircraft you ask? If one can understand the true workings of the human body and mind, then the functioning of many machine systems can be within our grasp. Here, we were subjected to rigorous physiological testing under extremes of heat, cold, humidity and wind to see how human reaction times and cognition were affected.

My MSc entailed looking at specific man-machine interface designs. I examined how fighter jet pilots would be impacted by not only the physical design of surrounding aircraft control panels, but also by having to evaluate the risks of information overload on their intrinsic ability to process incoming and outgoing data effectively and arrive at a vital decision and implement a critical action pathway. Ultimately, this ensured their safety, as well as the security of an expensive multi-million pound aircraft - and for commercial flights, the overall security of passengers and cargo. My dissertation in neurophysiology looked at how the two hemispheres of our brain communicate. The corpus callosum – a dense set of nerve fibres allows both hemispheres to interact with one another, like a bundle of cabling in any electronic system. 

My work in marketing helped SARBE, a British defence company manufacturing search and rescue beacons for aircraft pilots, secure contracts. Visits to the Paris and Farnborough Airshows and DSEI exhibition in London enabled me to interact with many pilots for whom their Personal Locator Beacon was invaluable. My personal highlight at one Airshow was the chance to sit in the cockpit of the iconic Eurofighter.

Recently, I was given the huge privilege of being a judge for the esteemed Aerospace Media Awards, held at the National Press Association in Washington DC. I evaluated ground-breaking articles on different aircraft and systems. The single unifying element within a framework of hugely complex hardware, firmware and software systems was quite simply - the human being.

A McKinsey report highlights some $100 billion being spent on autonomous driving, so what is the figure for autonomous flying? Flying remains in the domain of specialist pilots – except for drones and UAVs - but Airbus’ Vahana, etc. may change this.

Two things are vital – that we ensure our aerospace manufacturing supply chains are free of conflict minerals, and that governments worldwide take steps to evaluate and legislate meticulously. It is imperative that, unlike their failings in relation to climate change, social media and artificial intelligence, politicians now secure our airspace. I continue to learn and am encouraged by all scientists who are building a safe, egalitarian and exciting future, as we take to the skies with new technology.


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