Your job title?
Senior Optical Engineer with the European Space Agency (ESA).
What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?
To lead research and development of optical technologies useful for telescopes and instruments in space. Optical materials such as glasses and coatings must be able to survive without failure in the vacuum and cold of space.
To help manage the manufacturing and production of real hardware to be flown in space, e.g. the Herschel space telescope. I was involved in the mission and it was at 3.5m diameter the largest optical telescope ever flown in space, and was developed and built in Europe.
Describe a typical day?
I am part of a team managing an optical cleanroom laboratory at the ESA-ESTEC facility in the Netherlands, where about 2500 scientists and engineers are working.
Daily we are busy with making measurements and analyzing the performance of optical components to verify that they will meet our very demanding requirements.
I also participate in other teams of engineers and scientists that are working on specific spacecraft development projects such as for example the Euclid telescope observatory that will be launched in 2020 to study dark matter in the universe.
What are the things you like best about the job?
I love working hands on with hardware that will actually fly in space. Sometimes we even get to examine and investigate samples or components that have returned from space – that is even more fascinating and exciting.
What are the main challenges?
Like most jobs it’s the boring bits like administration and having to write reports every month about what you have been doing to justify your time.
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
A number of people and things influenced my career choice. One was growing up during the time of the NASA Apollo moon missions in the 1970’s. That was really inspirational.
Second was having a great physics teacher in secondary school.
And third was coming into contact during my first job with scientists working on space physics as part of their research.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Very much so. While moving from Ireland to work in The Netherlands was in the beginning a big challenge, I have enjoyed getting to know a different culture and language.
The multinational composition of the workforce in ESA has also been extremely stimulating and enjoyable.
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
I took science subjects, maths, maths-physics, physics, chemistry and biology, and certainly this was the right choice to pursue a career in science and engineering.
What is your education to date?
I did an MSc by research while I was working in my first job after graduating with a BSc in Applied Sciences.
The fact that I was working in a university made this much easier in fact.
Doing hands on research really appealed to me and led to the opportunity to travel to the arctic (in mid-winter) to make high precision optical observations of the airglow and aurora.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
Working on the development of optical instrumentation, and then using it for my research led me to consider optics and optical engineering as a further career.
This combined with my fascination with space science and an interest in astronomy led me to respond enthusiastically to the offer of a post with ESA.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
The most important qualities needed for working in space science and engineering are; good analytical approach to problem solving, an inquisitive attitude to challenges and an interest always learning something new from every situation, motivation to work in a multinational and multilingual environment and an open mind!
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
As a trainee or assistant in a laboratory performing either routine or research work in some scientific or technical field where high precision measurements and close attention to details are required.