Career Profiles: Lauren McKeown

What is your name? 

Lauren McKeown 

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

Post-doctoral research associate in laboratory astrophysics at the Open University, but I moonlight as a planetary scientist on the side. 

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

Yes it does. To a degree. I certainly love what I do, and I’m driven by what I do; I’m driven by research and wanting to understand other planets and planetary surfaces in the present day. That keeps me very happy in what I do day to day. But early career research is also slightly unstable and you have to go through one year to two year contracts for a while before you find something more permanent, generally, unless you’re very lucky. That’s where I’m at, at the moment. I’m certainly comfortable financially, but knowing where I’ll be in a year’s time… that’s kinda the struggle at this stage. 

 

Questions about your current Job 

 How did you go about getting your current job?
It was advertised online and I was recommended to apply to it by a colleague who works at the OU. I originally did lab experiments here at the OU in a planetary simulation facility so I knew some people here and they recommended that my skills were aligned with this post even though I wasn’t in astrophysics at the time, I was in planetary science, the skills were translatable to lab  

So yeah, I was sent the online post by someone, applied, and got the job. 

Describe a typical day.

It depends on what I’m working on. If I’m working on lab experiments then yes, there is a typical day. Once you get everything set up there’s a protocol. You’d be running experiments as planned, but then research can take many directions. Sometimes you have collaborations with people and be working on remote sensing work with the team of people remotely… so yeah, it definitely varies. A lot of the work is self-driven. You have to be self-motivated and nobody’s really looking over your shoulder to see are you doing things right in research. You direct yourself mainly. There’s a lot of teamwork involved too. 

What’s the coolest part of your job?

Smashing ice into sand under vacuum conditions in the lab. I really enjoy doing that. Some of the research I recently did was basically CO2 ice on sand under very, very low pressure conditions – Similar to the conditions we expect on Mars. Lots of strange dynamics happen – sand goes everywhere – That’s quite exciting to see. Even just to look at it. It’s quite fun. 

Are there any elements of your job that you dislike?

Being honest I would say the instability. When a lot of people are buying houses and they have that certainty in terms of having a permanent position – you can’t have a mortgage until you have that sort of permanent status in terms of career trajectory. In early career research things can be a little bit iffy and I guess you just have to ride through it. Also it’s quite competitive to get post-doctoral positions and you really have to fight to keep doing what you do… So that would be a downside I would say. But in my view it’s worth it to be doing something you’re passionate about. 

Questions about education and training 

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

When I was 13 or 14 I realised I wanted to do planetary science, so that was a good time. I was able to choose my subjects then in 4th year. I took physics, chemistry and also art (because I really like art). We also had to choose a language, so I chose French. Physics and chemistry were the main subjects that helped prepare me for my degree. I wasn’t very good at maths at junior level but when I realised I wanted to do this I worked very hard at it and I actually love maths now. I even tutor in maths on the side. So I did higher level maths as well and just worked really hard at it. 

Questions about yourself 

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

When a paper comes out it’s quite rewarding and getting feedback from people in the field that like your work and respect your work. These are people that worked on the research for many years before you and it’s always really nice to get positive feedback from them. It’s encouraging that you’re doing things right and that you’re in the right trajectory yourself. I’m very luck that people in my field are incredibly encouraging of young researchers so those moments have been very nice. 

I won the Pierazzo International Student Travel Award which is based on research and given to one non-US student internationally. I was presented wit hit at a lunar planetary science conference in front of lots of people. It was quite nerve-wracking, but it was a really nice moment of recognition for my work as well. 

Also, I interned at NASA which was a great experience too… It’s hard to choose! But those were all highlights. 

What is your dream job?

Actually I think this is quite important for anyone who is considering this career or a similar trajectory. When I was young, I wanted to work at NASA. That was the end goal. 

As I’ve gone through this career though I’ve realised you can work with people at space agencies from anywhere in the world, and you can be funded by those agencies, and you can even work at universities while collaborating with these agencies. I’ve been thinking about this for the last few years and I’d love to work at NASA for a while eventually but at the moment things are quite difficult in terms of getting to the US, especially as a non-citizen. So at the moment the dream is to keep doing research on planetary surface processes. I’d really like a post that is more permanent and more secure at a university maybe. I really enjoy lecturing so maybe that would be a route to keep doing research as well as teaching. 

So yeah, basically to keep doing the line of research that I’m really passionate about. 

 

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.

So I guess the career is planetary scientist. If you’re considering planetary science, keep on top of the latest developments. I first became interested in planetary science when I saw that Saturn’s moon Enceladus had water vapour plumes shooting out from its south pole. I found that fascinating. I became obsessed with planets then and I went on the NASA website lots. I started going online and engaging with the community a little bit. My mum put me in touch with some people at UCD that had connections out at Kennedy Space Center. So keep engaged with the material online and reach out and engage with the people doing this stuff because they’re always friendly and always willing to advise. So eventually when I got to 6th year in school I reached out to Professor Lorraine Hanlon at UCD cos I was considering doing the physics with astronomy and space science course there and she was kind enough to meet with me and speak about it. Those interactions with people along the way were instrumental in getting me here and I will say this – There’s very few planetary scientists in Ireland; There’s maybe 3 or so in Ireland at the moment. So it is hard within Ireland, so basically I would say contact some people – they might put you in contact with other people –  and chat to people about what you’d like to do coz you never know where it might lead.