Career Profiles: Rachel Dunwoody

Questions about your career and its development

1. What is your name?

Rachel Dunwoody

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

I am an IRC funded first year PhD student in the Space Science group in UCD. I am on the EIRSAT-1 team and the NASA Fermi GBM team. I am on the GMOD team of EIRSAT-1 and am involved in testing the novel gamma-ray instrument that will fly on EIRSAT-1. As part of the NASA Fermi GBM team, I am training to do real time analysis on Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRBs) which are violent explosions due to the death of a massive star or two compact objects colliding.

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

Yes, I have found that I can maintain a balanced lifestyle during my PhD. Along with my research, I make sure I have time for exercise and socialising with friends and family. I am a big fan of To Do lists to keep track of my tasks each day. I always plan my week to include my aerial classes (trapeze, fabric) and swimming in the pool in UCD. 

Questions about your current Job

4. How did you go about getting your current job?
In my final year of my undergraduate degree in Physics with Astronomy and Space Science in UCD, I was interested in research but not sure if I wanted to do a PhD. I approached my current supervisor about research opportunities in UCD in the field of gamma-ray physics and she took me on as a 1 year Masters by Research student. After a few months, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in research so I applied with my supervisor to the IRC and successfully got funding for a PhD.

5. Describe a typical day.
I start my day with making a list of the tasks I want to achieve that day. I check my emails and also make note of any calls or meetings I have that day. As I am part of two teams (EIRSAT-1 and Fermi GBM), I have at least one meeting or call per day to discuss progress and make plans for analysis or testing to be done in the coming week. There is a lot of variation in my tasks so I don’t have a ‘typical day’. Some days I can be involved in the satellite test campaigns and be in the cleanroom or laboratory working with hardware. Other tasks also involve working at my desk on documentation for EIRSAT-1 or performing GRB analysis with Fermi GBM data. A day in research could also involve reading scientific papers to keep up to date on the current research being done in your field.

6. What’s the coolest part of your job?
I love working with satellite hardware. Being part of building and testing Ireland’s First Satellite is an exciting opportunity and every day I learn something new. It is also exciting to analyse data of GRBs detected by Fermi GBM, it is amazing to be working with data from one of the most violent explosions in space.

7. Are there any elements of your job that you dislike
There can be a lot of documentation in research and space science as there are many regulations to follow to be able to put a satellite into space. However, the excitement of working on EIRSAT-1 definitely makes up for the documentation work.

Questions about education and training

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

In school, I knew I was interested in science so I took Biology, Physics and Applied Maths as Leaving Cert subjects. I also did Honours Maths but it wasn’t my best subject, I have always had to work hard to understand mathematics, even throughout my physics degree. Applied Maths wasn’t offered in my school so I did it on Saturday mornings but I found it interesting so it was worth doing it outside of school hours.

In my first year of college, I took Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Geology modules as I wanted to see what most interested and challenged me. By second year I picked my major as Physics with Astronomy and Space Science as I found that these were the subjects I enjoyed the most.

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

I successfully applied for internships in the summers of my second and third year in my undergraduate degree. These experiences definitely contributed to my career path in research this far and allowed me to develop the skills to qualify me for these roles.  During my first internship, I spent 8 weeks reviewing the quantum mechanical experiments in the undergraduate second year labs. I researched the experiments and wrote new lab manuals for each, that are now part of the curriculum. During my second internship I was selected to be on the team that built I-LOFAR, a research grade radio telescope in Birr, Co. Offaly. This experience with hardware contributed to my selection for my Research Masters with EIRSAT-1.

Questions about yourself

10. What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
There are a few events and experiences that stand out. EIRSAT-1 has given me the opportunity to go to the European Space Agency CubeSat Support Facilities (CSF) where we tested our payloads to ensure they will survive the harsh space environment in the thermal vacuum chamber and violent launch conditions on the shaker table.

As part of my outreach activities with EIRSAT-1, I have given some talks in primary schools. The interest and excitement of the students is so rewarding and reminds me of the importance of the project for inspiring future generations to follow a career in physics and space science.

In 2017, I attended the conference for undergraduate women in physics (CUWiP) where I networked with other women in physics and became more aware of the gender imbalance in this field of research. This inspired me to be more involved in science communication and outreach.

In my final year of undergraduate degree, I observed galactic open clusters (groups of stars that form from the same giant molecular cloud), with two telescopes at Teide Observatory in Tenerife. Operating the telescopes was one of the moments that convinced me I wanted to continue my career in research.

11. What is your dream job?
I don’t really have a dream job, my aim is to enjoy my work and I love learning so research seemed an ideal career to pursue as you are always gaining new knowledge. I also enjoy working in collaborations and as part of a team. I want a job that challenges and interests me.

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.

For a career in research, it is definitely important to be organised and motivated. If you are not passionate about what you are researching, there is no ‘boss’ to force you to do the work. I have weekly meetings with my PhD supervisor to monitor my progress but it is my responsibility to complete my projects for the week.

Gaining experience is definitely important to develop skills required for a career in research and it is a great opportunity to see if a research career is something you want to pursue. My advice for internships is to apply for a few and not just one.  Even if you have a preference, it is better to have options. Another tip is ask your lecturers or teachers about internship schemes because they often have heard of many opportunities and could offer to help with your application.

I went to the UCD careers development centre to have a professional review my CV before I applied. I brought the application description with me so it could be compared with my CV to ensure I was presenting my skills and education correctly.

You will also need references for internship applications, so ask your referees in advance and give them a couple weeks to work on your reference letter. If you leave it last minute, it is stressful for them as they probably have a few students asking for them.

My most important tip is to grab every opportunity, even though it can be intimidating, and never be afraid to ask for advice. Just remind yourself that every teacher or professor has been a student like you, trying to figure out their career path.