Career Profiles: Aidan Cowley

Questions about your career and its development

1.What is your name

Aidan Cowley

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

I work with the European Space Agency, stationed in the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne. I was a research fellow initially from 2014 to 2017, and then became an ESA Science Advisor in 2017.

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

I have always been deeply passionate about technology, science and space, so my interest significantly drove my career choices. Deciding at an early stage that I wanted to work in a technological/IT field – this led me to studying programming at University. I enjoyed this work, and use the skills I learned during this time very frequently, even to this day. After this period though, I wanted to diversify my skillset a bit and returned to college to do a Masters degree in Electronic Systems. It was during this time that I had the chance to do a real piece of scientific work for my thesis. I found this deeply satisfying, and knew I had found my true calling! I had the chance then to carry out a PhD study in the field of Materials Science, essentially learning an entirely new skillset again. I never lost interest in space – if anything, I grew more engaged with it as I learned how science is conducted. I would begin then to look for a chance to work with NASA and ESA on a scientific level – the final milestone (for now!) would be eventually joining ESA as a scientist.

4.Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

When I look back, there are a number of people who have influenced my career. Probably most notably it would be my PhD supervisor, Prof. Patrick McNally, who gave me the opportunity to pursue a scientific career in the first place. Without that chance, I would not have ended up where I am now. During my secondary education, I had some great teachers who effectively taught me skills I still use to this day. Fundamentally, I was also heavily influenced by scientists, explorers and astronauts – these people would become my early role models and would instill in me a deep love for learning and discovery.

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

Absolutely. I can only speak positively about my position with ESA, and also living on the continent. The locale is rich with places to discover and the work is always interesting and varied. Lots to see and do!

Questions about your current Job

1.How did you go about getting your current job?

I was working as a postdoctoral researcher at DCU after my PhD had finished, working on some really fun research projects as part of a team. I was also directing some of my own research and lecturing. These were good times, and I had no reason to complain – by chance though, I seen an opportunity at ESTEC (our technical centre in the Netherlands) that looked really appealing and would allow me to get some experience in the space sector. When I applied, I made it to the last round, but was unsuccessful. Undeterred, and having now seen the work that ESA does first hand, I came across another opportunity at the EAC a year later. This time, I was successful and offered the Research Fellow position there, much to my delight.

2.Describe a typical day?

Every day here is different! There are a number of meetings daily concerning projects that are currently running at EAC that I am involved in. As well as this, I help manage a number of persons involved with the ‘spaceship EAC’ project, which is part of the EAC future missions section. Meeting with this team and seeing how things are progressing is another task that comes up regularly. On top of that then there is the daily work of research, which covers analysing data from experiments, running experiments or simulations and keeping on top of the current developments that may be applicable to human spaceflight.

3.What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

Managing the ‘Spaceship EAC’ project, as well as carrying out research activities on behalf of EAC. Engaging with researchers across Europe and the world on how to prepare for future manned exploration missions.

4.What are the main challenges?

Keeping everyone focused on their project and seeing the teams work through to completion can be trying, but overall it is more of a fun challenge rather than a complaint!

5.What’s cool?

ESA and EAC specifically is a very cool place to work. Working with so many talented individuals from across Europe is a tremendous privilege – it’s a great example of what Europe can achieve when united. We like to joke that it’s the practical example of the United Federation of Planets from Star Trek.

Being at the coal face of human spaceflight in Europe is awesome also – seeing the astronauts being trained, assigned and flying missions first hand gives incredible insight into how the space enterprise works.

6.What’s not so cool?

Working with great people is a privilege – I often count how lucky I am to do so daily. When I tell people about the work I do, I wish I could transplant them into a normal day here, just so they can see what it’s like. Sadly, this isn’t the way the world works, and I often feel down about the fact that not everyone gets to experience such an environment during their career.

7.What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

I was trained as a Material Scientist, and also did a lot of research in the area of energy systems after that. Before that, I earned my Masters in Electronic Systems and my bachelors in Computer Applications. I have a very broad range of skills from all this, as a scientist and also as an IT guy. Skills like scientific writing and programming are tools I use nearly daily.

Questions about education and training

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

I studied technical drawing and Physics until my leaving certificate, as well as applied maths. Definitely the Physics and Maths subjects helped later in life when I started into my scientific career. Apart from that, having a strong curiosity and willingness to learn really helped

2.What is your education to date?

Graduated with a B.Sc in Computer Applications (Software Engineering), M.Eng in Electronic Systems and my Ph.D, all from Dublin City University, Ireland.

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

Definitely my PhD was crucial, as the position is a scientific one and I am expected to carry out research. The skills you learn from the PhD I have found very transferable, as was the specific experience I gained learning various programming languages over the years.

4.Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job? Yes, most definitely – there is a lot to learn at ESA and there are a number of internal workshops and courses available to further develop.

Questions about yourself

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

Graduating with my Masters and then later in life with the PhD have been two stand out moments for me. Later, getting the call from my future boss at ESA about joining the team. There have also been some research funding successes that are quite memorable.

2.What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career? Curiosity, willingness to learn new things quickly and also understanding the value of mistakes and learning from them. Also, being approachable, honest and friendly have helped.

3.What is your dream job?

I really enjoy the job at the moment – it would be hard to envision a better position to be honest!

4.What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Understanding how ESA works is a big bonus – the practical work that the organisation does and how it feeds back into ESA member states is important.

ESA usually hire for specific experience, so having a good depth of knowledge in a field augmented with experience is key.

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

Any experience in the space or aerospace sector is clearly an advantage, but so is experience with technical and scientific writing. Being able to demonstrate experience as part of a multi-national team is also highly valued, as ESA is made up of personnel from the different member states.