What is Smart Futures?

Smart Futures is a government-industry programme providing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers information to second-level students, parents, teachers and careers guidance counsellors in Ireland. On this website you can:

  • Read career stories profiling people working in all kinds of STEM in our blog; browse STEM ‘Career Stories’ or look up a career by entering a keyword (e.g chemistry) in the search box (top left hand corner) 
  • Request a STEM volunteer to visit your school for free here or become a volunteer yourself!
  • Watch careers video with people working in areas such as food and sports science, cybersecurity, engineering, energy, app development, biotechnology, medical devices and lots more hereSTEM Infographic

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Career Stories: Dominic Doyle, Senior Optical Engineer, ESA

Dominic Doyle talks to Smart Futures about his career as the Senior Optical Engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA)

ddoyle

(Picture of Dominic Doyle as reflected in the Herschel Telescope during its final preparation for launch in the cleanroom at the launch site in French Guiana)

Your job title?

Senior Optical Engineer with the European Space Agency (ESA)

What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?

To lead research and development of optical technologies useful for telescopes and instruments in space. Optical materials such as glasses and coatings must be able to survive without failure in the vacuum and cold of space.

To help manage the manufacturing and production of real hardware to be flown in space, e.g. the Herschel space telescope. I was involved in the mission and it was at 3.5m diameter the largest optical telescope ever flown in space, and was developed and built in Europe.

Describe a typical day?

I am part of a team managing an optical cleanroom laboratory at the ESA-ESTEC facility in the Netherlands, where about 2500 scientists and engineers are working.

Daily we are busy with making measurements and analyzing the performance of optical components to verify that they will meet our very demanding requirements.

I also participate in other teams of engineers and scientists that are working on specific spacecraft development projects such as for example the Euclid telescope observatory that will be launched in 2020 to study dark matter in the universe.

How can we image “dark matter” I hear you ask? Now that’s a nice question for you to answer!

What are the things you like best about the job?

I love working hands on with hardware that will actually fly in space.

Sometimes we even get to examine and investigate samples or components that have returned from space – that is even more fascinating and exciting.

What are the main challenges?

Like most jobs it’s the boring bits like administration and having to write reports every month about what you have been doing to justify your time.

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

A number of people and things influenced my career choice.

One was growing up during the time of the NASA Apollo moon missions in the 1970’s. That was really inspirational.

Second was having a great physics teacher in secondary school.

And third was coming into contact during my first job with scientists working on space physics as part of their research.

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

Very much so. While moving from Ireland to work in The Netherlands was in the beginning a big challenge, I have enjoyed getting to know a different culture and language.

The multinational composition of the workforce in ESA has also been extremely stimulating and enjoyable.

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?

I took science subjects, maths, maths-physics, physics, chemistry and biology, and certainly this was the right choice to pursue a career in science and engineering.

What is your education to date?

I did an MSc by research while I was working in my first job after graduating with a BSc in Applied Sciences.

The fact that I was working in a university made this much easier in fact.

Doing hands on research really appealed to me and led to the opportunity to travel to the arctic (in mid-winter) to make high precision optical observations of the airglow and aurora.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

Working on the development of optical instrumentation, and then using it for my research led me to consider optics and optical engineering as a further career.

This combined with my fascination with space science and an interest in astronomy led me to respond enthusiastically to the offer of a post with ESA.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

The most important qualities needed for working in space science and engineering are; good analytical approach to problem solving, an inquisitive attitude to challenges and an interest always learning something new from every situation, motivation to work in a multinational and multilingual environment and an open mind!

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

As a trainee or assistant in a laboratory performing either routine or research work in some scientific or technical field where high precision measurements and close attention to details are required.

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Career Stories: Aisling Shannon, Structual Engineer, ESA

Aisling Shannon talks to Smart Futures about her career as a Structural Engineer at the European Space Agency,

ESA photo Aisling Shannon

Your job title?

Structures Engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA)

What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required in your career?

My role is to ensure that the spacecraft gets to where it needs to go without breaking!

The launch of a spacecraft is very tough from a mechanical perspective, lots of shaking and noise and a some loud bangs!

These shocks and vibrations are the main drivers for the mechanical design of the spacecraft. It is my responsibility to ensure that every part of the spacecraft is going to be able to survive the launch.

A lot of analyses are performed to confirm this before we ever build anything.

Describe a typical day?

A large part of what I do is read. As I mentioned a large part of the work is done virtually, so it is my responsibility to read the analysis reports and make sure that every aspect has been considered.

Another thing that I spend a lot of time doing is teleconferencing with our industrial partners across Europe. This saves a lot of traveling although there is still quite a few trips for me to France, Germany and England.

What are the things you like best about the job?

The testing of spacecraft hardware is definitely a highlight. To survive the launch, we test for vibrations by shaking the hardware and for surviving the separation from the launcher, we do shock testing.

What are the main challenges?

Of course, there are certain aspects which are a bit boring, mostly the administration parts.

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

For me, one thing lead to another.

In my final year at university, my thesis topic was using an analysis program which normally was not available to undergraduates due to the high costs (at the time) of the licenses.

I then had a skill which most graduates applying for jobs did not have, so I believe it helped land my graduate role.

I had four placements over 2 years for this role and again one of those, was performing analysis that is not commonly used. When I applied for my next job, having that skill separated me from the other people applying.

Having something unique on your CV will always lead you in interesting directions.

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

Definitely.

Certainly there is a balancing act between my commitments, personal and professional, but I think it works and I am happy where I am, doing what I do and with the possibilities for the future.

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?

For Leaving Cert, I did 7 honours, Maths, English, Irish, German, Chemistry, Accounting and Economics.

Other than Maths, I don’t think they were the best choices for going into an Engineering course, but I just had to work harder in the first year to reach the same level as all the other students who had done Physics and Applied Maths for Leaving Cert.

What is your education to date?

As I said, 7 Honours at Leaving Cert, then a 2:1 Honours Bachelor of Engineering in Aeronautical Engineering.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

I could not pin point any one module from university that has proven most useful, however, on-the-job training courses have been really focused in the area that is relevant to me now.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

There is not one best route to get to the job I have today.

If I talk to my colleagues, all have found different routes to get to where we are now.

Definitely you would need a primary degree in engineering, but now I think most companies expect a Masters Degree also.

If you want to do Mechanical/Aeronautical Engineering, then definitely doing Physics and Applied Maths this will give you a good head start at the start of your degree.

I believe that doing a more generalised degree and specialising with a secondary degree or with your work experience is the best approach.

At the stage of leaving school, it is so difficult – if not impossible, to know which career path you will end up on.

Keep an open mind and don’t worry if you are not certain on what you want to do or how you get there. It is a gradual process!

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

Unfortunately there are not many companies in Ireland that do the kind of work that I do, I left Ireland as soon as I graduated and worked mainly in England before moving to ESA in the Netherlands.

ESA does work placements for students and graduate programmes for recent graduates, so check out the website for more information.

For opportunities in Ireland, Enterprise Ireland are the coordinating body, who work with all of the Irish companies involved in the space industry, and Enterprise Ireland also support students and graduates so making contact with them could be a good first step into the space industry.

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Career Stories: Neil Murrey, Aerothermodynamics & Propulsion Design Engineer

Neil Murrey talks to Smart Futures about his job as an Aerothermodynamics & Propulsion Design Engineer at ESA.

Neil

What is job title?

Aerothermodynamics & Propulsion Design Engineer

What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required in your job?

I am responsible for initiating and running activities throughout Europe on a multitude of topics related to propulsion design and Aerothermodynamics. I also provide technical support to other divisions throughout ESA.

Describe your typical day?

My day has no set structure. I am currently managing a very tightly scheduled reentry project and this takes a lot of my time.

For this we in the project team have a telecom every Wednesday to discuss progress but I am in contact with team members daily (if not hourly).

Since this experiment will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) I have frequent safety discussions with colleagues here in ESA and I am responsible for ensuring that the experiment is safe for the ISS and its crew. In parallel to this I am managing activities related to launcher staging, plumes and high speed computational tools.

What are the things you like best about the job?

There are a number of cool aspects of my job some of which perhaps only I find cool. I enjoy the fact that I can use my engineering experience to work on topics directly related to putting vehicles and people in space.

I enjoy the fast paced projects that I am involved with and even though I do spend some sleepless nights worrying, the buzz when you find a solution is fantastic.

In the past 6 months I have: managed a project to put a reentry capsule in space, built hardware for astronaut training, taken part in a space debris study and more…

What are the main challenges?

As you can imagine, there is a lot of administrative work that goes with project management and this is particularly true when you are dealing with flight hardware and safety to crew.

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

Of course my parents have had a big influence but also the work experience I had in university played a big part in motivating me to get the most out of opportunities.

Also, there were the teachers I had along the way who were excited about science and mathematics and were able to pass on this enthusiasm.

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

Yes it does.

ESA is a family friendly organization. There are many perks such as home leave, generous paternity and child benefits. Also the wages are very good so we can have a comfortable life.

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?

I took Physics, Mathematics and Applied Mathematics by choice and also had Geography, German, English and Irish.

Of course Physics mathematics and applied mathematics are core subjects in my day to day work.

What is your education to date?

I took my leaving certificate in Cork. I then achieved a First Class honours degree in Mechanical Engineering at Cork Institute of Technology.

After this I went to MIT, Boston to do a research masters which was focused on the fluid dynamics of a NASA compressor stage.

When I finished this I went to Imperial College London to do a PhD in Hypersonic Aerodynamics.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

Most courses I have done have been of some use but in particular the courses on aerodynamics, thermodynamics and mathematics have been the most useful for my current job.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

It helps to have a logical mind and to be fond of puzzles and problem solving. I spend a lot of time trouble shooting and this can be a stressful task if you are not motivated by challenges.

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

Any industrial work experience is a good start but it would be best to get some experience in a small engineering office of engineering workshop.

Also ESA provides opportunities to students to spend some time on-site working, getting experience and making contacts.

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Career Stories: Paolo Fiorini, Vice President of Operations at Enbio

Paolo Fiorini is the Vice President of Operations at Enbio. He talks to Smart Futures about his career path so far.

Paolo

What are your main tasks?

As the Vice President of Operations in Enbio my duties are to take a process that has been developed by the Research and Development (R&D) team and to establish it as a stable manufacturing process. This begins at a planning level with the R&D team to design and develop the process further for manufacturing; establishing layout and process flow, operating and maintenance procedures, production management structures, quality control, operator training, health and safety, etc.

Upon establishing the facility as fit for manufacturing it is my duty to ensure it is maintained and to appropriately improve it by liaising with its Operation Manager, its Operators and the R&D team. Furthermore, it is my duty to integrate and provide engineering solutions to new processes, products and technologies that are introduced to the company.

It is also my responsibility to liaise with the R&D team throughout their activities by providing my production and engineering expertise as necessary. Ultimately, my focus is to provide them with support in terms of development with a view to production.

What’s a typical day?

I can rarely predict my day. Other than big meetings which take precedence, everything else follows from what’s going on in the company. I work well like this so it isn’t a problem as I like the diversity.

A lot of my work involves liaising with colleagues, customers or suppliers about their needs. I find that I have to make a lot of decisions and take responsibility in my role.

As head of operations I need to have a good understanding of how everything works as part of my job is to supervise and assist when there is a problem or hold up in production. This can involve robot programming, fixing machinery, quality inspections, ensuring procedures are carried out correctly, etc.

I’d say I spend 50 % of my time at the computer writing emails, reports and planning, 30% of my time on the production floor and 20 % at meetings.

What are the aspects you like best about the job?

Working within a good team. Being paid for what I am good at and qualified to do. Being at the leading edge of technology and developing novel processes and products. Finally I enjoy  interacting with clients such as the European Space Agency.

What are the main challenges?

Occasionally I will have to work long hours; because our technology is so new very little goes to plan and as a result we must sort problems as they arise.

As head of operations I have to read and write a lot of mundane documents which usually accompany customer orders. Their content is fairly boring but it is very important that I don’t overlook anything.
Finally dealing with poor suppliers/contractors can be very frustrating.

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

My path into mechanical engineering is something I think I found myself; I had very little support from family or guidance counselors in this regard. In terms of my PhD and current work, I’ve been driven by some very respectable academics in University (UCD) who are very ambitious people and are involved in very interesting work. I tend to choose to work with people I like and respect and in an area that interests me. It’s also important through your career to challenge yourself and move upwards.

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

For the most part, yes. While I’m happy to be working in Dublin, I can see myself working abroad at some stage which I look forward to. I’d imagine that isn’t something that appeals to everyone.

I work for a start up company so security isn’t guaranteed but it is a risk I’m willing to take as I’m young. Furthermore, the potential for this company is very big so I have the opportunity to make it a success which in turn will progress my own role and career.

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?

Physics, technical drawing, woodwork and applied maths. English has been very important to me in my career and I wish we had being taught technical writing in secondary school; I had to work on that myself in college.

What is your education to date?

Leaving Certificate, B.E. in Mechanical Engineering, PhD in Mechanical Engineering.

I have also done courses in robot programming, computer aided design and statistics.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

I think that materials science, mechanics of materials and manufacturing courses were of great benefit in college. We also did shorter courses in business, ethics and law which I thought were very important to develop an appreciation for.

Most importantly we did a course in Presentation Skills which was by far the most useful course I’ve done to date. Before this course I was a very nervous speaker, however after this course I worked on all aspects of my communication skills. I can’t emphasis enough how important communication is in my career.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

In my experience it was very obvious in first year of college who wanted to do engineering, it’s seems like you’re either interested in it or you’re not. Above all a good engineer is someone who likes analysing things and solving problems. Engineering is fairly science and mathematically based however you can get by without being amazing at either. However the important part is to be interested in it and to be a proactive person.

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

This is a tough one for engineering as you won’t be given much responsibility until you are qualified. Any opportunity to work in an engineering firm is a good place to start but remember that there are different types of engineers; management, researchers, technicians, etc.

I did work experience with a company who sold air conditioning units which wasn’t all that appealing to me as the engineers were more like technical salesmen. I’m more interested in manufacturing and design which is a very different environment.

I don’t think it’s critical to have engineering work experience before college, but of course any experience you can get is good.

My engineering skills were mainly developed in college through group projects, coursework, etc. I think my final year project which collaborated with a tooling company was my first significant opportunity in terms of engineering work and allowed me to exercise my discipline under good supervision.

You should also take any opportunity to visit a company/universities; I’ve visited many and learnt a lot.

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