Meet Marta Luffarelli, Remote Sensing Scientist

Marta Luffarelli

Name: Marta Luffarelli
Title: Remote Sensing Scientist
Education: Master in Electronic Engineering

Book(s): Oceano Mare from Alessandro Baricco

Personal fun fact: I have trouble making the difference between dishwasher and washing machine in every single language, including Italian, my mother tongue!

Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I was born and grew up in Rome, Italy, where I studied up to my Master in Electronic Engineering. The choice of my studies was partially driven by my father's career path, but also by my passion for math and physics. I found it magical to be able to describe the world around me through complicated equations.

During my studies I bumped into the Earth Observation field, and I was immediately drawn to it. I applied for an internship in Telespazio Germany, in Darmstadt, to develop my master thesis on a satellite processor, and after that I knew I wanted to continue working in this field. I found a job in 2016 as a Remote Sensing Scientist in a small company in Brussels, called Rayference, where I still work today. Today, I want to continue improving my skills and bring my contribution to this field, but also raise interest among the younger generations and universities about Earth Observation.

What is your job and what does a typical workday look like for you?

I am a Remote Sensing Scientist, which for many doesn’t add much information. In practice, I work with data from satellites observing the Earth, I analyse them to gather information on the Earth's atmosphere and surface, with the final goal of better understanding our environment. Most of the projects I work on are in the framework of European Space Agency (ESA) Climate Change Initiatives (CCI).

My typical day consists in sitting at my desk and coding, analysing large images, writing reports and papers. Before covid times, and hopefully soon again, I would also travel a lot around Europe for conferences and meetings, with the aim of discussing with other scientists on how to move forward as a community. In the picture below I was lucky enough to have a work event at the French Riviera. Not bad to have a walk along the seaside after meetings!

Marta Luffarelli presenting

How would one go about getting into the field of earth observation as a programmer?

Nowadays more and more attention is given to software programming in the Earth Observation field, especially due to the large amount of data that needs to be processed. Software must be efficient, fast, bug proof, robust, with easy to read logging. Of course a minimum knowledge on the field is required, but you don’t need to be a physicist or an engineer to work in this field!

Which are the minimum requirements you should prepare for or things you should at least have a grasp off?

From the software point of view, I think the most important aspects are distributing computing, parallel processing and memory management. A lot of software is written in Python, and many common mathematical and scientific libraries are used, for instance numpy, pandas, xarray, scipy. A good knowledge of this is required.A general grasp of what Earth Observation is, what a satellite actually measures, what a satellite orbit is, is of course very much appreciated. It will also make your job as a programmer a bit easier.

Are there certain spaces to keep an eye on for possible job openings?

Linkedin is certainly a good place. EARSC, the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies, reunites many small Remote Sensing Companies around Europe and is updated with the current openings. In Belgium there are also few options: the company where I work, Rayference, the Flemish institute for technological research, VITO, and the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, BIRA, among others.

Are there any other tips you can give us?

Be passionate! I really think this always pays off. Find a job that inspires and challenges you, that makes you feel useful and fulfilled. If you apply for a job in the Earth Observation field, prepare it adequately. Show that you made an effort in understanding what the job is about and what is the place of the company you’re applying for in the field. Don’t be afraid of asking questions, and be honest, always.

Marta Luffarelli yoga post arc

How about when you’re not working? Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?

Outside of my main job, I am a yoga teacher and practitioner. I love this discipline, as it teaches me to be present, kind and compassionate with the world around me and with myself. I also love dancing, at the moment I dance salsa and bachata, but I've danced my whole life.

I've always played the piano too, thanks to my dad who taught it to me probably even before I learned to speak. And obviously a cliché, but I love travelling and learning about different cultures. I try to bring my hobbies with me when I travel, as you can see from this picture from Sicily!

How did you get into yoga and becoming a yoga instructor?

I started yoga looking for some more grounding and calm in my life. There was a studio close to my place and I started without knowing exactly what that would lead me to. After 3 years of practice I wanted to know more about this discipline that was slowly changing my life and my relationship with my body and with myself, and I kept hearing “A yoga teacher training is the best way to deepen your practice.”. I never had time though, rushing from work to my thousand hobbies. During the lockdown though I had time to slow down, and everything was moved online, including yoga teacher trainings. So I took this opportunity, and here I am. I did it only to improve my own practice and knowledge , but afterwards, almost by accident, I found a job as a yoga instructor. I believe sometimes life gives us opportunities, sometimes it is up to us to choose what is worth saying yes to and see where that leads us!

What or who got you initially interested in coding and / or pursuing a career in tech?

My father is not only a pianist, but an electronic engineer as well. In my “rebel” teenage years I tried to find a different path, I said I wanted to be an architect, an interior designer, a psychologist.. But after all I had to admit that engineering was probably the most suitable choice for me, both for my skills and for the type of career I wanted.

If you look back on when you first started out. What advice would you give yourself?

To find more information about the average starting salary for someone with my curriculum, to bond more with the colleagues and to ask them what their conditions are. I do not consider it fair having differences among people with the same role and the same tasks. Also, I would tell myself to be more confident and to not be afraid of answering back to sexist comments, which unfortunately aren’t uncommon in my field.

Are there any particular women in tech who have inspired you?

I never really had many female role models around me, also in university most of my professors were men (obviously). I felt the lack of this though, I think it would have helped me be more confident. Even today, I am sometimes afraid on how to balance the career with the private life, and this is why I insist on showing young girls relatable role models, to show examples of women who “made it” and to inspire more women to aim high.

Do you have any favourite resources or projects you like to follow?

I like to follow the Towards data science blog and the Real Python blog to stay up to date with latest trends in Python (my most used programming language)

What would be your absolute dream project to work on?

From a pure working perspective I would like to continue in the direction where I am going now. My PhD (yes, I am also a PhD candidate, in my “free time”) has been a very innovative project that could potentially initiative a new approach to aerosol retrieval (pollution, fire, dust plumes) from satellites.

However, I would also love to find ways to engage with younger people in university, to promote the Earth Observation field and inspire more people to get involved.

Where do you see yourself in the future? Got any exciting goals lined up?

I will soon submit my last paper, and hopefully finalise my PhD thesis. I will keep an open mind for the future, let’s see what new opportunities will open up after that. The only thing I really wish for myself is to always be passionate about my job, and to get up in the morning knowing I’m doing something useful for the society.

What made you join the women.code(be) community?

I was once invited as speaker in an event of a similar community, and I liked a lot the idea of promoting science and technology among other women. I wanted to connect with more people, and when I came across women.code(be) on LinkedIn it seemed the perfect match for me.

How could the tech industry be more inclusive for women and minorities?

I think that THE big change has to happen already in girls' education. Since a very young age, as girls, we are often taught to be sweet, pretty, we play with dolls, we have tea parties, while boys are taught to be strong, confident and they play with legos and cars.

We are taught that there are men’s jobs and women’s jobs, that it’s hard for a woman to be a mom and have a career at the same time. I recognise things are slowly changing in the way we educate our kids, but I still think this change is too slow, and only happening in a small number of families. Although the tech industry can hardly interfere with little girls' education, it has a power to encourage secondary school students, by organising workshops and events (see for instance the organisation Greenlight for girls).

Also, I think it is important to show examples of successful but still relatable women, and to bring the community together with initiatives such as womendotcodebe, because it is true for everyone in every situation: together we are stronger!

We hope you enjoyed Marta Luffarelli's story, feel free to share this article with your network. ❤️

You can find Marta on twitter, instagram and LinkedIn.

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