What’s your current role?
I’m a senior project manager at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, which is part of University College London. The Laboratory carries out a lot of space science research, and the scientists rely on engineers to design and build the instruments they need to carry out their research.
My main project over the past few years has been coordinating the design and production of the Solar Winder Analyser sensors for the Solar Orbiter, a satellite that is going to orbit and collect data from the Sun. It’s a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), but it has a big UK involvement. There are ten sensors on it, being developed by international teams. The UK is involved in four of these teams, and two are being led by the UK – including the one I am coordinating. All the individual sensors are being integrated onto the spacecraft by Airbus in the UK.
We’ve been developing three sensors that will analyse particles in the solar wind – streams of particles that are ejected by the Sun at speeds of up to 3 million kilometres an hour and temperatures up to a million degrees Celsius. We want to know more about the make up and behaviour of these particle streams.
As well as providing a better basic understanding of the solar system, this has practical uses. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar winds, but severe solar gusts can damage electrical and communications equipment – like one experienced in 1859, which played havoc with telegraph equipment, the internet of the day. We’re due another massive solar flare soon, and advance warning could help us protect satellites and communications systems.
There are teams all over the world working on the instruments – scientists, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and software engineers. My job is to ensure that they all work together as a team to tight schedules and even tighter budgets. I need technical knowledge and engineering skills, but project management is crucially about organising things and people – communication and interpersonal skills are vital, particularly when members of the team are from very different backgrounds.
How did you end up in your current role?
When I was young I wanted to be a car designer, but I wasn’t good enough at art to go to the Royal College in London. Then I discovered that mechanical engineers made things – in our school design and technology workshop, there was an Institution of Mechanical Engineers poster of a girl doing engineering and I thought I wanted to be just like her.
I spent a year in industry before doing a mechanical engineering degree. After graduation I spent six years in the vehicle engineering, then got made redundant. I’ve always been a bit of a sci-fi nut, so when the opportunity to become a space engineer at Mullard came up I thought I’d go for it, not thinking I had much chance. But they ended up offering me the job, which shows how being trained as an engineer opens lots of opportunities.
When I came back from maternity leave in 2007, I was asked to coordinate a multimillion pound bid for funding of our solar wind analyser. When that was successful, the department said it had gone so well I ought to coordinate the whole project.
I’d previously worked on Beagle 2, which went to Mars in 2003, and the James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in 2021, but this was the first time I’d had responsibility for the entire project. It was quite a challenge, but we delivered the final instruments to Airbus in May 2018. It’s going to be sent into space on a NASA rocket early in 2020.
What’s the best thing about being an engineer?
When I see pictures of our satellites, it’s nice to think, “I helped to make that”. When you work in a field you have a particular interest in, it’s very rewarding.
The space industry is very strong in the UK – we have some of the world’s best space scientists, engineers and companies. Space engineering generated £13.7bn in 2014/15 and employed nearly 40,000 people directly, most of them highly qualified, and is seen as having great potential for growth.
Also, the skills you gain aren’t just technical. Many are skills you can use in other areas of your life. I used my project management skills to organise a five-day convention at a holiday camp for people who enjoy role-playing games, raising £6000 for charity.
Communication skills are often under-appreciated. One of space engineering’s most memorable mistakes came when one group was working with imperial measures – inches and feet – and the other with metric measures, because they hadn’t communicated properly.
Can anyone become an engineer?
You need to be good at maths and physics – not necessarily a genius, but you need to be comfortable with numbers. Everyone has their mathematical limitations – it’s really not as hard as people sometimes say it is.
What’s important is that all kinds of skills are important in engineering. Being methodical and having great attention to detail can be vital, particularly in space engineering – in our clean room, we can’t allow more than 50 particles on the entire instrument. In 1996, the Ariane 501 mission exploded 40 seconds after launch, due to software flaws that hadn’t been tested properly. There really is very little margin for error.
But engineering also needs its ‘big picture’ people who don’t get lost in the detail and can bring all the different strands of projects together.
Too often, young people – especially women – think they cannot do engineering. I constantly used to think I wasn’t up to the job, and benefited from a really supportive and sensitive mentor who gave me confidence and encouragement. I ploughed on, and had to keep telling myself that I can do it.
What three things should young people know about engineering?
- Every product you touch has an engineer behind it: someone somewhere has designed and made it, using engineering skills and knowledge.
- All young children are engineers, trying things out and solving problems: ‘real’ engineering is just an extension of what we do automatically as children.
- It’s fun!
My advice is, don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot do it. My maths teacher once said to me ‘aim for the stars’ – I think I took him literally!