Career Profiles: Giovanna Giardino

What is your name?

Giovanna Giardino

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

My job title is Instrument Scientist. I am part of the ESA JWST team and have contributed to the development of NIRSpec, the European Near-Infrared Spectrograph on board of the Webb Space Telescope. Currently I work on the calibration of NIRSpec and on the preparation for the astronomical observations with this instrument that will start this summer.

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

Yes. I have had very busy moments, but I always managed to balance work with family life. My family is also very supportive and when my children were young I managed to work part-time – 80%. I am very grateful I was able to do that.


Questions about your current Job

How did you get your current job?                                                 

I obtained a degree in physics, followed by masters in radio astronomy and a PhD from University of Milano (Italy) in Astrophysics on the subject of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). After that, I would have liked to continue on the path of academic research, but, at the time, the only possibilities in terms of post-doctoral fellowships were in the US, whereas I wanted to stay somewhat closer to my family and future husband. So I started working as a software programmer/analyst for a company in the UK in the field of image processing. Although I initially enjoyed the change, after about a year, I realized that, it was not really my world, and I applied for a research fellowship at the European Space Agency (ESA). At the end of the fellowship program, I remained at ESA, where I now work, as a contractor, initially supporting the development of the Planck satellite (for CMB studies) and then moving on to work on NIRSpec since 2010.

Describe a typical day.
A typical date involves many hours at the computer, especially now, with the pandemic, when most of the meetings and many events are online. Depending on the day, at the computer, I program, test, write many emails, analyse data, write documents or sometimes prepare scientific papers.

In the past, there would probably be an average of two in-person meetings a day, interspersed by more informal discussion with colleagues. I used to travel regularly for conferences or meetings and to support the ground testing of NIRSpec and soon I will travel to the US for some of the in-flight calibration activities for this instrument.

What’s the coolest part of your job?
There are many aspects I like, and I like very much the variety: from understanding the data and improving the analysis, to discussing ideas with colleagues or at a conferences, to talking to the public about Space Science. I like solving problems, and coding, but not for the activity of writing a program per se, but because the algorithms I develop can help me, or someone else in the team, make sense of certain data or detect a pattern or make a prediction about the instrument. I like to learn and improve my understanding by investigating data. There’s a lot in this job that is about solving “puzzles” and finding ways to improve a process or the performance of an instrument.

I love the environment at the Space Agency with many bright and enthusiastic people and I like to think to aspects of reality that are far-removed from day-to-day life, like the Universe, stars and galaxies… I am fascinated by nature and the cosmos in particular.

Are there any elements of your job that you dislike
Well, I do not like the administrative part of the job. Also, for me, the atmosphere in the team is very important, at the moment I am very fortunate in terms of colleagues as well as more loose collaborators. I have had a different experiences in the past, luckily not for a long period, where team spirit was lacking and communication was difficult, then I did not enjoy the everyday experience so much.


Questions about education and training

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

I studied in an Italian Liceo, where for the diploma at 19 (the one needed to enrol for University), one cannot really select subject packages, but have to study a wide range of subjects until the end of the course, both in the Humanities (literature, foreign language, history, philosophy etc.) and Science (math, physics, chemistry…). I came to enrol for a Physics university course, not so much because I liked high school physics (I didn’t – I was not really into springs and rolling balls J), but because I was very interested in understanding how nature works, from the very small (sub-atomic level) to extremely big (the universe). I approached my studies very much at a philosophical level – but of course I did not mind lots of math… again, ultimately I have always liked solving puzzles, and that is what physics and maths are very much about, and why they can be fun!

What non-technical skills are necessary for your job?

Scientists and engineers may end up having to write a lot, for internal communication and to publish the results of their research, so being able to write reasonably well, with attention to the logical flow of the arguments is important. Also the work of a scientist has evolved very much in the last 20-30 year to more and more team work, like most of the professions, so the ability to communicate, initiative in reaching out and team spirit are also important.

How did you develop those 21st Century Skills?

Not sure… I believe in the fundamentals, in terms of foundation subjects like math, physics chemistry, logic, or engineering, as well as always being open to learn new ways of doing ‘things’. With strong foundations and openness, one is equipped to learn throughout life: new “apps”, programming languages, designing or modelling tools/processes etc.


Questions about yourself

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
I had the fortune of being part of the team of scientists and engineers that built and operated the ESA mission Planck: an extremely technologically advanced satellite, that performed precise observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background transforming theoretical research in cosmology.

The successful launch of the Webb Telescope on 25th Dicember was the best Christmas present, ever.

What is your dream job?

This one, at this particular moment.


Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice

What advice would you give to someone considering this job? Are there important personal characteristics, or good work experience they can undertake for example.

Like any other job/study, it is important to be very interested in the subject and overall enjoy learning about it, be prepared to be intellectually challenged, as well as having the motivation to go through the unavoidable less interesting parts or boring tasks.

Testing things out, in terms of attending open days at Universities, talking with older students, or later on, if one has the possibility of doing an internship, can always be useful.