Career Profiles: Karen O’Flaherty

Questions about your career and its development

1.What is your name?
Karen O’Flaherty

2.Where do you work and what is your role/job title?
I work at the European Space Agency as a science communicator.

3.What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
I never intended to go into science communication – I don’t think I even realised it was a career when I began. I started out with a plan to do research and along the way I have deviated and ended up in communication. I have always tried to make the most out of whatever job I had and despite having no fixed long-term career goal I have found myself in very interesting and challenging roles. Each of them have provided me with the chance to develop new skills – so despite not doing research, which was what I thought I would do when I left University, I have still experienced the satisfaction of discovery and development that I expected to find from research.

4.Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
Sister Assumpta at Rockford Manor Secondary School in Blackrock taught higher-level mathematics and introduced physics lessons outside school hours. This meant that a few students at the school, including me, could go on to study science at University. Looking back, I think this had the most impact on the path I followed.

5.Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Under normal circumstances the job does allow a reasonable work-life balance. But science communication, and especially working in news, is not a 9-to-5 job. There are times when personal plans have to take second place to work.

Questions about your current Job


6.How did you go about getting your current job?
I was offered this job when the previous incumbent moved on. By coincidence, I was looking for a change from the job I had at that time so it was opportune.

7.Describe a typical day.
A typical day is when I don’t get to work on what I had planned to work on! Each day I will spend some time commissioning new material or editing material that has been written by someone else. I spend a lot of time checking facts and statements. Some time is spent coordinating with other PR partners, running the editorial board, scheduling publications, and planning for new outreach projects.

8.What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
I’m responsible for commissioning articles, illustrations, and outreach material for publication online, and for ensuring that the content is factually correct. I also work with data visualisation experts to develop interactive tools for outreach, and I’m involved in Art-Science collaborations that bring artists and scientists together to foster new ideas.

9.What are the main challenges?
My main challenge is juggling many tasks to making sure that we meet deadlines.

10.What’s cool?
I get to hear about the latest developments and discoveries in space science first hand.

11.What’s not so cool?
Not having enough resources to run all the great outreach activities that we could do.

12.What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
I have worked as a scientist, as an information manager, and as a science communicator, so I understand what each group needs and what each group can offer. This insight often smooths the way when dealing with difficult topics or very new situations.

Questions about education and training


13.What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
In secondary school I studied mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as English, Irish, French, and History. I planned to study science at University with a view to going into the chemical industry. It just happened that I was better at physics and found myself drawn towards a degree in that subject.

14.What is your education to date?
I did my BSc in Experimental Physics and PhD in High-Energy Astrophysics at University College Dublin.

15. What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
Training to be a scientist means that you develop a sense of curiosity, a desire to investigate, and an attention to detail. These are aspects that are also important in science communication, which is the area I work in at this time.

16.Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?
There is always something new to learn. At this time, I’m interested in learning how to evaluate outreach activities in a meaningful way.

Questions about yourself


17.What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
Working on the communication campaign for ESA’s mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was very rewarding because it showed me how people really pull together under very difficult circumstances to get the job done. I enjoyed working on the Gaia space astrometry mission as information manager because I got to see how many diverse people with different expertises collaborate to make this remarkable mission a reality.

18.What personal qualities do you have that help you in your career?
Determination to see that a job is well done – this pulls me through the difficult phase (if there is one) and helps me get to a final product that I am happy with.

19.What is your dream job?
My dream job is a job where there is always something new to learn, where there are colleagues who are motivated and inspiring, and where there are opportunities to try new things.

Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice


20.What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Read a lot – it’s a great way to find new ways to express ideas. Write a lot, even if just for yourself, so that you get used to communicating your ideas on paper. Develop your time management skills – that is crucial when working in an area that has very tight deadlines. Learn more languages – it’s very helpful to have an insight into how people express themselves in different languages.

21. What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Patience. Curiosity. Perseverance.

22.What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Writing for school or college magazines, or local newspapers; giving talks in schools or at public events; helping at science conferences.