Career Profiles: Lána Salmon

What is your name?

Lána Salmon

Where do you work and what is your role/job title?

I’m a first year Irish Research Council funded PhD student in the UCD Space Science Group.

What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?

When I visited Kennedy Space Centre at age 9, I knew I wanted to find out more about space. I think I realised that I could have a career searching for answers to questions like scientists at NASA do. Seeing the launch pads and vehicles made it all very real and within reach. I got a telescope that Christmas and have loved astronomy ever since!

I chose technology as a Leaving Cert subject and I looked forward to each class more than any other. Designing and building something or trying to overcome an engineering problem was really fun and I realised I’d like to have a career doing something similar.

I loved my undergraduate degree and knew I wanted to have a career in physics, but I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue a career in research. My summer research internship with Dr Antonio Martin-Carrillo showed me that research is incredibly rewarding and exciting. I got to use data from the NASA Swift satellite to study Gamma-ray bursts, the most energetic explosions in the universe. Working on data no one had ever seen before was really exciting and I decided that I’d like to pursue a PhD.

Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

My parents always cultivated my interest in space – we re-visited Kennedy Space Centre numerous additional times and they bought me many physics books. My whole family are so supportive and have always influenced my career decisions.

The first time I watched Professor Brian Cox’s TV show ‘Wonders of the Solar System’, I think his ability to show how beautiful physics is cemented my decision to study physics. His passion for the subject is really endearing and I knew I had to learn more.

My maths teacher Ms Leonard really taught me how to study, learn, understand and improve my maths and problem solving abilities. She cleared up any worries I had that I wouldn’t be able to pursue physics because maths wasn’t my best subject. I think she showed me that if I worked hard I would succeed.

Lastly, my current supervisors Professor Lorraine Hanlon and Dr. Antonio Martin-Carrillo continue to inspire and support me. Their enthusiasm, advice and experience assists me hugely.

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Above all, I get to do what I love every day, and that’s the lifestyle I have always wanted! I love communicating science, as it was science programmes like Professor Brian Cox’s that made sure I studied science. Doing research allows me to continue to communicate science through blogs and talks. My talks and blogs always focus on the accessibility of science – that anyone can be a scientist, to ask more questions, be more curious, and never let a grade stop anyone from doing anything! I think it’s a privilege to be able to share my story and the beauty of physics with the public, and this job allows me to do that. Being a researcher is very time consuming and isn’t really a 9-5 job, but I like that!

How did you go about getting your current job?

At the beginning of my final year of my undergraduate degree, I had just completed an 8 week summer research internship in the UCD Space Science group. I realised that I love research – I like asking questions and finding the answers to those questions. So I approached Prof. Lorraine Hanlon and Dr Antonio Martin-Carrillo to find out if there were any PhD opportunities. We decided to apply to the Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate scheme. To do this, a lengthy proposal was written detailing the project aims but also my own achievements and credentials. 3 months of hard work went in to this proposal and once sent off, we waited 4 months for a reply. Whilst coming down from Mount Teide in Tenerife, where I had just spent 5 nights on my undergraduate research field trip, I got an email to say my application was successful. I cried! I’m lucky to be funded by the Irish Research Council to conduct research. When I started my PhD, students in UCD and Queens University Belfast had just proposed a design for Ireland’s first satellite, EIRSAT-1. It was chosen as part of the Fly Your Satellite! Programme, so now I’m part of the team trying to get Ireland into Space!

Describe a typical day.

I don’t think there is such thing as a ‘typical’ day in research. Unexpected things happen all the time! But a usual day means I am in at 8:30am and I check my emails for anything urgent. My PhD project aims to develop a strategy to search for the optical counterpart to gravitational wave sources using UCD’s Watcher robotic telescope in South Africa. At the moment my days are usually spent writing code to tell the telescope how to look for these sources. It’s a very complicated process, so I’m continually hitting barriers. About half of my time is also spent working on EIRSAT-1, which involves handling the website, Twitter and outreach events. I also work on the Ground Segment, which is like the station from which we will communicate with the satellite. Some days I have a meeting with my supervisors to update them on my progress, or we have EIRSAT-1 meetings.

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

I suppose the overall task is to fulfil the aim of my research – to develop a strategy to observe gravitational wave sources with small telescopes. This involves a lot of problem solving and coding, both of which I enjoy! In later years I will also have teaching hours. I do some outreach from my research including blogs and talks. I will attend conferences and present posters or take part in workshops. For EIRSAT-1 I have 2 defined roles – Outreach and Ground Segment. Since our satellite is an educational one, we want to inspire young people to study STEM through talks, workshops, competitions and social media. So I write blogs, tweets and organise and give talks. For the Ground Segment, I have to make sure that we build and test the antennae and equipment used to communicate with the satellite. I’m quite new to amateur radio, but I’m learning and will study to get my license in the new year.

What are the main challenges?

Researching something means you have to delve very deep into a subject. It’s not like having a step by step guide anymore – all the information can be very specific so it’s all about building knowledge from the ground upwards. I very often hit brick walls and I don’t know how to continue, and this can occur for days or weeks. It’s tough to find the persistence to keep going when things are very unclear. So above all, I’d say the main challenge is that research involves dealing with complicated, specialised information.

For EIRSAT-1, fitting really cool science into a small satellite is a huge challenge! But above all the challenge is that none of the students working on the project are experts – we are all learning as we go, and that’s an exciting challenge.

What’s cool?
The discoveries and breakthroughs are cool. And I don’t mean huge, world changing discoveries (though those are also really cool), but the satisfaction of getting code working after a few days of trying to fix it, or understanding what steps you have to take next. These little victories are super exhilarating, and all part of the process of learning.

Also being a part of something that will go into space is amazing. Knowing that what we are working on now will fly above us in Space and do really cool science is very exciting.

What’s not so cool?

Because there’s no step-by-step guide, doing research can be quite frustrating and time-consuming. But I think that I feel so lucky to be studying something so interesting that I don’t mind!

What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

I think I bring my science communication experience to the EIRSAT-1 team. I manage the outreach parts of the mission and one of the main aims of the mission is to inspire the next generation of young people to study STEM. I think I’m passionate and willing to try figure out things, so that helps!

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

At Leaving Cert I took Physics, Chemistry and Technology. I think in particular Technology influenced my career path hugely. My school was the only all-girls school to offer Technology and I always felt encouraged to study STEM subjects. Technology gave me the opportunity to study the technical things I like – designing and building things. I got to learn skills I use every day. I think it really made me see a future in a STEM type role.

What is your education to date?
I completed my Junior and Leaving Certificate in St. Wolstan’s Community School, Celbridge. I chose to skip Transition Year as I always knew I wanted to study physics or engineering, and felt like I was ready to launch into Senior Cycle. I had the most amazing 5 years in St Wolstans and loved every minute of it. I love learning, so I thoroughly enjoyed school and felt very supported by all the teachers there.

I chose UCD Science (DN200) as my first CAO choice and thankfully I got in! I studied Maths and Physics for first and second year and chose Physics with Astronomy and Space Science as my final degree path at the end of second year. I graduated in September 2017 and I am currently doing my PhD in the UCD Space Science Group.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

The problem solving and practical skills gained throughout my undergraduate degree are vital. Being given a lot of complicated apparatus and having to figure out how to prove some physical principle in labs has equipped me with the ability to conduct experiments and solve problems.

Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

I think science is all about continually learning – throughout my PhD I hope to take part in many conferences and workshops. I also think that working on EIRSAT-1, Ireland’s First Satellite, is a continual learning experience. The students on the team aren’t experts – we are all learning by doing – by designing, building, testing and operating a satellite.

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

Getting into UCD Science undergraduate course and graduating after 4 years is incredibly rewarding. Probably the experience that comes out on top is the field trip to Teide, Tenerife. I felt that the whole experience of proposing a complicated project to study a binary star system and then learning how to use a world class telescope to conduct this research was really rewarding. Most of all, presenting my results and writing it up in a thesis was a proud moment – 4 years of hard work had led to that point and I had learned so much.

What personal qualities do you have that help you in your career?

I am curious – all children ask many questions but some adults lose this curiosity. I didn’t lose it, and I always want to figure out the answer to a problem. I am persistent and I will work hard to make sure that I overcome difficulties and barriers. And I am passionate, which makes my work much easier!

What is your dream job?

I’d like a job where I can teach people about physics, and continue to do outreach. I also get huge excitement out of doing research, so maybe I currently have my dream job! Working on EIRSAT-1 has also shown me that maybe I would consider a role in the Space sector, as I am really enjoying the designing/building process!

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

I would tell them to work hard at what you love and don’t doubt your ability. It’s amazing what barriers you can overcome when you are motivated and passionate about what you do. I would also tell them to ask many questions and search for the answers. Oh, and maybe consider studying Applied Maths at Leaving Cert level if you can – it’ll give you a taste for real world problems and it’s never too early to get a head start on undergraduate physics.

What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

Dedication, passion and an analytical mind.

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

If you’d like a taster for research, a lab in a University would be a good place to try for work experience. The UCD School of Physics also run a TY Physics Week each December and it’s a great experience of labs, lectures and trips. A placement in a technology company might give you a taste for problem solving.