Against this historic backdrop STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre celebrates the ground-breaking work of its female engineers today
The Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE), home to the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC’s) UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) was the backdrop to an episode of Channel 4’s Great British Car Journeys.
In Series 2 Episode 3 presenters Peter Davidson and Christopher Timothy explore the story of Dorothée Pullinger, a pioneering motor engineer in the 1920s, most famous for designing and building a “Car for Women” at her factory in Galloway, Scotland http://dorotheepullinger.co.uk/
In this photograph Peter and Christopher enjoy a drive in the Galloway car, with its current owner Louise Innes. Louise who is Principal Curator of Transport at National Museums Scotland with a particular interest in pioneering women in transport and industry says,
“I bought this car because of my interest in transport, and female engineers in particular. I love driving it to events and letting many more people know about the amazing Dorothée Pullinger and the women engineers who built the car. It was just great to be here driving on the same roads that Dorothée drove the car on back in the 1920s. And so heartening too, to know that today the ROE site is home to many female engineers doing pioneering and groundbreaking work.”
In 1922 Dorothée won a Silver Medal in a reliability trial for the car which, for the final test on the last day, required her to drive it up the particularly precipitous Blackford Hill in Edinburgh – the hill atop which the ROE sits. The Autocar, published on May 13 1922, covered the trial. In the article, shown here, it was clearly a popular event. There are thousands of spectators lining the road on the hill!
As the director and manager of Galloway Motors, Dorothée recruited a large female workforce to train as engineers and build the cars at the end of World War I, and in 2012, she was the first woman to be inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.
Against this historical backdrop and set amidst a heritage of astronomical observing in the City; STFC’s UK ATC on the ROE site is today a ground-breaking high-tech engineering facility delivering world-class instruments for the worlds’ biggest and most ambitious telescopes on land and in space. A vibrant and collaborative workplace, it brings together a diverse workforce of different skills, gender and nationality to deliver solutions to complex technological challenges. Here we catch up with some of the female engineers at UK ATC to hear about the innovative work they do; and what inspired them to choose a career in engineering.
Naomi Dobson is a systems engineer on STFC’s graduate programme. Naomi says “I was watching Comic Relief as a kid, and there was a clip about bottle lights being used in slums – to provide light without the need for electricity. I really liked the idea that people had taken the principles of light refraction to create a simple solution that would really improve people’s quality of life. I enjoyed mathematics and science at school, and was interested in the practicable problem solving that a discipline like engineering offered. I did a degree in Systems Engineering at the University of Warwick, and then joined STFC’s graduate scheme.
“Today I contribute to the systems engineering work packages for two of the world’s most ambitious telescopes:
“What is really rewarding for me, is working in large multi-disciplinary teams and designing systems for unique one-off pioneering instruments.”
Katie Morris is a mechanical engineer on STFC’s graduate programme. Katie says, “I’m a meticulous person. I like precision and detail, and as a kid I always enjoyed drawing – I captured a lot of detail in my sketches – and building Lego. However, although I was always interested in how things work, which is pretty fundamental to engineering, engineering wasn’t my first choice. When I left school I thought I wanted to be a geologist; and so that is what I started studying at University. But, I felt it lacked a practical application, which to me felt meaningful, and so I switched and did an HNC in engineering systems before completing an MEng in mechanical and energy engineering.
“I absolutely love what I do. I feel like I’m involved in cutting-edge work that is purposeful. Today, I work on:
“I particularly enjoy working in very different scales: I develop mechanisms that have to be accurate to fractions of a degree but they are then integrated into an instrument that will be several metres tall which then sits on a platform on the ELT. I like that I get to work as part of a large consortium of partners who are all developing different parts of the same instrument. It’s very rewarding. I’ve got a great job.”
Viivi Pursiainen a software engineer on the STFC graduate programme, says “When I was about 12, my Mum showed me that a website could be made from something as simple as a single text file. This really intrigued me, and so I immersed myself in learning to design and build websites as a hobby. Inspired by my work on websites, I originally thought I wanted to be a graphic designer and I started studying visual arts. I realised however, that art wasn’t the part that I enjoyed most. It was the programming and problem solving that really motivated me. At the time, I didn’t know much about programming as a profession, but a friend suggested I study Computer Science. I got a BSc from the University of Dundee, and then went on to do a Masters in Software Systems Engineering at University College London.
“I recently joined the software engineering team at UK ATC working on:
“This is a huge project delivered in collaboration with many different countries. This means it’s not just new programming languages I am learning to work with, but how to work as part of a large distributed team, across the Globe too.
“What I love most about my job, is the problem solving – spending time on a particularly difficult problem and finally getting it all to work. Whilst frustrating when trying to figure it out; solving these sorts of challenges not only makes me feel accomplished, the process of finding a solution usually teaches me many new considerations – when looking for new approaches to try.”
Hermine Schnetler head of systems engineering at STFC’s UK ATC, says “I stumbled into engineering because I loved the sciences at school, and I was fascinated by computers and processors. I decided to study electronic engineering at the University of Pretoria, in South Africa – and was the first woman to graduate in the subject.
“For me engineering is a hugely creative process. As a systems engineer I often feel that I am an artist, because I’m designing and creating instruments that enables great science. To do this I need to understand what the instruments need to do; and then design a system that can do exactly that – stitching all the designs from all of the engineers together – turning many hardware items and software components into a coherent system. I work with all of the engineering disciplines to make all of this happen.
“As well as the engineering itself, I’ve reached a stage in my career where I get a lot out of nurturing young people. I set up the work experience scheme at UK ATC, where small groups of secondary school students, aged 14-18 spend a week with us to experience what it is like to be an astronomer and engineer at UK ATC. The initiative has helped to inspire many young people to embark on a science/engineering career path. Recently, it’s been particularly rewarding to see one of our very first work experience students complete his PhD in Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh’s (UoE) Institute for Astronomy (IfA). The IfA, a faculty of UoE, is our neighbour on our ROE site.
“I’ve also been hugely proud to play a role in developing our junior staff. I enjoy watching people grow in confidence and make great progress in their roles.
“Today, I’m responsible for the systems engineering for HARMONI, one of the first light instrument for ESO’s ELT; Naomi is a graduate systems engineer in my team who explained what HARMONI is in her interview. I am responsible for the science part of the instrument, called the integral field spectrograph as well as for the overall instrument control. This includes the electronics for all the instrument systems and sub-systems. The HARMONI control system includes the real-time software required to correct for the blurring of the image the telescope sees; due to the turbulence caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. This essentially removes the twinkling of the stars!
Finally I am also the Principal Investigator for the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme for Opticon – the Optical Infrared Coordination Network for Astronomy. Specifically I lead the work that looks at additive manufacturing (in other words 3D printing) – and how these techniques could be applied in the design and build of astronomical instruments https://www.astro-opticon.org/h2020/jra/jra5.html
“I do not believe in complex systems; it is best to keep it as simple as possible, without compromising the capability. I enjoy providing solutions to solve problems and I enjoy contributing to the growth of my team and young people too. It’s a really wonderful job.”
Carolyn Atkins is the additive manufacturing (AM) technology development lead at STFC’s UK ATC. Carolyn says, “I inhabit quite a unique space – as I sit at the interface between science research and engineering.
“I did an undergraduate masters in Astronomy and then a PhD in Astronomical Instrumentation, because I realised by the end of my degree that I was really interested in how telescopes worked. I have been following that path ever since…
“My role is focused on researching AM techniques, specifically for mirrors for use on telescopes and on small satellites in space.
“AM is a term that describes a method of creating an object where material is added in layers to create a precise 3D structure. Used for space research, where weight and volume limits are critical; AM space mirrors could mean we can make a lightweight mirror, more tailored to its function - integrating mirror mountings and a cooling mechanism as part of the same unit, for example.
“The idea is in its infancy, and that’s what I find hugely exciting about my work. I’m collaborating with partners across STFC’s labs, nationally as well as with University and industry partners to specifically investigate how AM can be tailored to make lighter, stronger and more integrated mirror components.
“So far… we have considered aspects such as: the mechanical design – looking at different structures that will create a lighter-weight mirror; including too, the orientation that the structure should be printed in – whether in a horizontal or vertical plane. We’ve used engineering optimisation design tools to calculate the optimum lightweight structure for the mirror. This is essentially evaluating where the volume is best placed in the mirror structure so it retains its stiffness. From an optical engineering perspective we’ve explored the surface quality we can achieve for different AM mirror designs. It’s very exciting…
“I work too with Hermine on the Opticon project she talks about in her interview. And a particular highlight for me too, has been taking the open source data from Tactile Universe. This is an initiative to 3D print galaxies so that the visually impaired community can experience the Universe that we see, through touch. I wanted to explore how another illustrative layer could be added to the experience for people, by printing with using different types of materials, for example from a soft rubber to a hard plastic.
“My work is hugely rewarding as I believe there is a strong potential future for AM mirror capability for both space and ground-based telescopes. I also love working with shiny stuff – and seeing the process through from design, evaluation and then fabrication (the actual build).”
Last updated: 04 February 2020