Piyal Samara-Ratna

Engineer at the Space Research Centre, Leicester.

I work at the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester where I have been for about 12 years since graduating from university. I am a chartered mechanical engineer by trade and completed a 4 year MEng degree at UCL. However depending on the project my current roles tends to vary. Currently I am working on multiple different projects where depending on who you speak to I am either a mechanical engineer, technical lead, systems engineer, project manager or principle investigator.


What does your job involve? 

My role can vary though it can be summarised as working as a member of a team in projects which have to deliver incredibly complicated instruments, to very strict timescales and budgets. Like all members of the team it is my role to use my skills and experience to help the project reach its goal. When designing, a lot of time is spent in front of the computer making sure designs are right. Once we start building more time is spent in the laboratory and clean room building and testing. If the project has national or international partners then we will often spend time in meetings making sure that everything is developing in the right direction.

Currently my weeks are fairly consistent. At the beginning of the week for the projects that I am the technical lead I run a series of meetings where we discuss the state of projects and agree what progress will be made during the week. The middle part of the week will be spent working as part of the team to achieve the goals – most of that will be engineering related tasks. The end of the week is spent writing up progress reports to discuss at the beginning of the following week.


What do you enjoy most about your role?

Knowing that you are building equipment that will answer some really important questions about the universe and the Earth is incredibly rewarding. Often answering these questions will require developing technologies that have not been invented so will allow you to work with the latest technologies which is often very exciting. There are very few industries that allow you to push the boundaries of what is achievable as the space industry.


What is the most challenging part of your role?

Funnily enough the aspects that are the most enjoyable can also often be the most challenging. The reason that questions have not been answered is often that the technology required to do this is incredibly difficult to build. The level of detail required to build a successfully working space instrument is incredibly challenging and requires a lot of effort, persistence and organisation.


Where do you want to be in 5/10 years?

I would like to see our group grow and for me to help new engineers and scientists develop their careers. It would be the best indicator that we are doing a good job and that the UK space industry is going from strength to strength.


When did you become interested in space/the space industry?

It has always been the engineering rather than space itself that has motivated me to work in this industry. It wasn’t an industry that I particularly thought was open to me and I was delighted when I was offered this opportunity. The UK space industry is a bit of a hidden gem and I am glad that people are starting to advertise how good it is more clearly.


How did you get your job? Was it easy?

After graduating I was hoping for a career in the RAF. When that did not happen I really struggled to find a good job. I cannot remember how many job applications went out but it was a lot. At one point I had to leave engineering and take a job in a hotel as a waiter to ensure ends met. However during this time I continued to work on developing my skills and kept a look out for potential job opportunities.

One day I spotted the advert for a mechanical engineer at the Space Research Centre in the back of an engineering magazine and took a punt to apply. I wasn’t sure if I was suitable but at interview it turned out that my experience suited a lot of what they were looking for. As they say, the rest is history and I would recommend anyone to keep persisting and looking for opportunities to get them on the right career path. Now I am very happy that I was rejected from the RAF. Don’t get too disheartened if you are rejected from what appears to be the ideal job. A better opportunity may be just around the corner!


How did you decide which aspect of the space industry to work in?

As a teenager I was considering a career in either art or engineering. In the end mechanical engineering seemed like a good compromise. It requires a surprising amount of creativity and by creating complex shapes you sometimes feel like a sculptor.


Is there anything you wished you’d learned at university that would come in useful now?

It would have been good to have learnt more about the other fields of engineering like optical, software and electrical. Most instruments are a complex mix of all the engineering disciplines and understanding more about each aspect would have saved me a lot of learning on the job.


What decisions or opportunities you took do you think significantly influenced the fact you got that job?

If you want to pursue a career as an engineer then getting real-world experience to compliment your academic knowledge is essential. To allow me to do this I undertook as many work experience opportunities as possible. This included taking two year out placements during my degree. It was actually the experience during my second industrial placement which was not in the space industry which gave me the best experience for me to apply to work in my current role.


What advice would you give to people looking for a job in your industry?

For those in their early stages of their career, or learning, 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. The UK needs great engineers and scientists and nowadays you can do this with very little investment. 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.

When we interview candidates for engineering roles the focus on a candidate’s understanding of space is fairly minimal. While having an interest in space is great at keeping you motivated a lot of the specific criteria for sending hardware into space is fairly straightforward to learn. What is more challenging is being a good general engineer. That is what we are most interested in seeing demonstrated from candidates.


What is the most exciting space thing you’ve seen or heard about?

I’ve been very lucky to have seen plenty of exciting things over the years. For most of my career I have worked on the James Webb Space Telescope Mid-Infrared Instrument which is currently being tested at Johnson Space Centre. Working at NASA Goddard and JPL and seeing the scale and complexity of the equipment there was really awe inspiring. Seeing the mirror segments for the James Webb Space Telescope and walking out of a cleanroom to see an entire spacecraft being moved out for transportation to launch are definitely some of the many sights that will remain in my memory for many years to come.


Heidi Thiemann

Heidi is a PhD student studying variable stars using SuperWASP at the Open University.

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