Top science award for ex-chef who swapped kitchen for constellations

A former chef who left the kitchen to pursue a career in astrophysics has won a top scientific award for an idea that came to him in his college car park.

Student Alex Mortimer was sitting in his car at Blackpool and the Fylde College when he was hit with the inspiration for a network that would clean up space debris in low orbit.

The idea, developed over the following 12 weeks, went on to scoop the 31-year-old a prestigious Business of Science Innovation Award, after he gave a presentation to scientists at a conference in Edinburgh.

Alex, from Fleetwood, who has just completed his first year of a BEng (Hons) in aerospace engineering at the college, said the award would set him well on his way to his dream career with a space agency.

He said: “I cried when I won. I’ve always struggled fitting in and this was like being accepted. This has hopefully shown that I’m not just someone who follows everyone else but someone who thinks outside the box. It also showed me I was right to follow my passion.”

ODIN, his project inspired by his love of Norse mythology, stands for orbital desynchronisation industrial network, with one of its satellites dubbed LOKI – low orbit kinetic interceptor. The ODIN network would use satellites to collect small parts of space debris in low orbit, a problem Alex said he is keen on addressing.

He said: “I’d been working on a different idea but one day my course tutor, Hannah Taylor, sat me down and said I could do something completely different if my heart wasn’t in it. Space debris is always an issue and, as someone who wants to see humans explore space, it’s been in my mind to try and figure it out.

“I’d just parked my car up at college and, because I have a very vivid imagination, it came to me.”

The dad-of-two submitted his proposal and was then invited to the Business of Science Conference to present to delegates and judges along with the other finalists.

A STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) ambassador, he has since been invited to work on a project with a Bradford primary school, a fellow innovation award winner, this autumn.

Alex, who had space posters on his walls as a child, previously worked his way up from kitchen porter to chef at Barton Grange Garden Centre and Twelve Restaurant in Blackpool. But, when his father, a fellow physics enthusiast, died unexpectedly in 2018, it prompted him to take a step back to assess what he wanted from life – and how he would be remembered.

He gave up his job and enrolled on the three-year degree programme at the college’s Bispham campus, never looking back.

He said: “The reaction to the award from my tutors and the people on my course has been really supportive, they’ve been brilliant. The course can be mentally taxing but it’s amazing, and if it’s something you love then you keep going even when it’s challenging.

“The majority of my classmates are younger than me so I’m known as the class dad!”

Alex, who celebrated his award with partner Kimberley and their children, Andrew, eight, and six-year-old Emily, plans to pursue a doctorate at the end of his degree with the goal of a role with the European or UK space agencies.

Thanking the college, including tutors Hannah Taylor and Nicole Dean, he added: “The message from this is that it’s never too late to do something you’re passionate about.”

Tutor Nicole Dean congratulated Alex on his award. She said: “Alex works hard every day on his course so it was no surprise that he excelled when faced with coming up with an innovation in science.

“We are all inspired by his amazing efforts and look forward to seeing what else he can achieve as a student at Blackpool and the Fylde College.”

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