Career Profiles: Jessica Erkal

Questions about your career and its development

1. What is your name?

Jessica Erkal

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

I’m currently working on my PhD in star formation and protostellar jets at UCD, and I lead product assurance activities for the EIRSAT-1 Cubesat project.

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

Yes! I’m a very social person and research is very collaborative. I enjoy group meetings and paper discussions with my research group where we highlight new research and ideas in our field. I find research quite flexible as well. There’s more to it than just sitting at a screen coding all day, and I like being able to switch tasks if I need a break from a certain type of work.

Questions about your current Job

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

I met my PhD supervisor during my MSc studies at UCD. I was keen on doing a PhD since my undergrad but wasn’t quite sure which area of astrophysics to focus on (I found it all so interesting). I completed my MSc thesis with the same supervisor, and I really enjoyed that project so we worked together to find funding for me to continue working with her for my PhD – and here I am! I got involved in the EIRSAT-1 project during my MSc as well, where I met the academic lead for the project (Lorraine Hanlon) in my gamma ray detector labs.

5. Describe a typical day.

I don’t know if there is a “typical” day! I usually start my day by meeting some of the other PhD students for a coffee and a chat before getting stuck into some work. I try to make manageable to-do lists each day and follow that – this can mean I’m doing anything from analysing data, creating new figures for a paper, or doing some background reading to help me understand my results. I also demonstrate some of the undergrad labs so sometimes you’ll find me in the student labs or grading a stack of lab reports! Some days I have the opportunity to go into the EIRSAT-1 cleanroom and oversee testing or assembly activities for the satellite, which involves carefully making sure we follow all procedures to ensure everything is done correctly so we can be confident the mission will be a success!

6. What’s the coolest part of your job?

My favourite part of research is having the opportunity to use world-class telescopes as part of my research and being able to interact with experts in my research field. Currently I’m using data from the Hubble Space Telescope – I always saw the really pretty space pictures from Hubble growing up and I thought they were amazing, so being able to use that telescope for my research is so exciting to me.

7. Are there any elements of your job that you dislike

Sometimes it feels like all the deadlines come all at once, so time management can be difficult at times but you get used to handling it!

Questions about education and training

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

I did history, art, French, physics and applied maths for my leaving cert. I enjoyed all my subjects and was stuck between choosing to study art or physics at university. My physics and art teachers were always supportive of me in school, and made the classes very interesting and engaging. But in the end I chose physics, because I prefer being able to do art without any pressure of deadlines. Pursuing physics has still allowed me to be creative though, and requires some creative thinking to solve new problems.

9. Did you participate in any extra-curricular projects and if yes, did this affect your career choice?

I took part in the Young Scientist competition in school, where we studied colour-blindness. I really enjoyed that project and for me it was a good introduction to research.

Questions about yourself

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

A big highlight for me is being part of the EIRSAT-1 team. I was one of the students who pitched the project to ESA experts at the FYS! Selection Workshop in 2017 and finding out we were successful was so exciting! More recently, I’ve been awarded a studentship at ESO where I will spend one year analysing data from some of the world’s best telescopes based in Chile.

11. What is your dream job?

I would love to work as a project scientist on a large space mission. I was always fascinated by the Cassini and Juno missions and I think it would be amazing to lead the scientific activities and goals of a new mission.

Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice

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

Pursuing a PhD requires a lot of hard work. I think it’s important that you can work independently, but also reach out for help if you get stuck on something. Most importantly though, I think as long as you’re passionate about your research topic and you get along with your supervisor, you’ll make a great PhD candidate.