Hi Piyal Samara-Ratna! What is your job and what is the most exciting part about the work that you do?
I’m a Mechanical Engineer at the University of Leicester Space Research Centre. For JWST I was a member of the lead mechanical engineering team for the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). I was involved in ensuring that different mechanical elements of the instrument and equipment used to handle it worked as expected. I was also part of the small team tasked to deliver the instrument to NASA and install it onto the spacecraft.
The fact that something you’ve personally designed will leave the planet is very exciting. It is also very rewarding that the equipment will answer some really important questions about the universe and the Earth. Often answering these questions will require developing technologies that have not been invented so will allow you to work with the latest technologies. There are very few industries that allow you to push the boundaries of what is achievable as the space industry.
The space industry often requires working with people in other countries and requires a lot of overseas travel. Seeing and working in other countries is really interesting and a great way to see the world!
What motivated and inspired you to pursue a career in the STEM industry?
Growing up and seeing the shuttle, astronauts working in space and learning about Hubble was always very inspirational for working in the space sector. However I never thought that I would be helping to build Hubble’s replacement! My dad is also an engineer so gave me confidence that it was the right career choice for me. He would often be tinkering with his car engine and working with him gave me confidence and interest to work practically.
I’ve always enjoyed art but wanted to apply this creativity to solve practical problems. Therefore engineering seemed like a good fit. I’ve always liked like the fact that engineering allows you to apply maths and physics creatively to solve real-world problems. I still find it satisfying that you can solve an equation to predict how something behaves and then build it and see that it behaves exactly like you thought.
What is the biggest misconception about your job?
The biggest misconception is that the job is not creative. It takes a lot of imagination and creativity to find solutions to the challenges that you face. Designing hardware on a computer is similar to artistic drawing and a well presented complex engineering drawing can look very similar to a piece of art.
What were you like as a child and what interests and hobbies did you have?
I really enjoyed art and playing on computers. I would often just doodle on paper for hours. I also found drawings and being creative on computers very satisfying. I did karate for many years and I like to think that the martial arts training helped to give me the determination to persevere when trying to find solutions to particularly tricky problems!
As a child I was always quite quiet and shy. However, I have promoted our work in front of audiences up to 1000 people around the world. It has taken a bit of practice but I now really enjoy the experience. It is really exciting and I love promoting all the exciting work that my university and the UK space industry does.
What advice would you give your eight-year-old self about building a career in space?
Try to get as much practical experience as possible but do not get too hung-up about doing things that are directly related to space. You can do this with very little investment. Build something; there are some great engineering projects on websites like YouTube. You can also learn to design on computers, using free software like Google SketchUp. Learn to programme a Raspberry Pi or Arduino, design and build something with the many free software products and tutorials available online. You can learn great practical skills just by learning how to maintain a bike. Engineering is all around us and just having the curiosity to see how things are designed, manufactured and assembled will really help with your career.
Why do you think JWST is an important part of our space exploration?
Understanding about the universe and our place in it is incredibly important. It is a critical step to understanding the meaning of life and ensuring the survival of the human race. To really make big improvements in our understanding you need an observatory as complex as JWST. Otherwise our understanding will never improve. When in operation it will be able search for planets supporting life and answer previously unanswered questions on how the universe was formed. These developments will have a profound impact on everything we understand and help shape future space missions.
Where do you think we’ll be in 50 years in terms of space exploration?
In 50 years’ time I think space will be far more accessible to us than it is now. The price to reach space will be a lot cheaper and we will have more companies launching their own spacecraft to explore the universe. This may be for space mining or other commercial purposes and we will have people living on Mars and the Moon. Space tourism will start to be a normal activity that is accessible to more normal people.
With missions like JWST being completed we should have a much better understanding on whether life exists on other planets. Depending on the answer there may be some really exciting projects to make contact with other life forms or extend human presence on other remote worlds.
Piyal Samara-Ratna appears in Activity 3.2 Mega Mirror Engineer in Chapter Three of the Deep Space Diary. Download the activity and teaching notes here.