Interview

Karen Haughian

Research Fellow in the Institute for Gravitational Research at the University of Glasgow


Who are you and what do you do?

I am a Research Fellow in the Institute for Gravitational Research at the University of Glasgow. I work on materials research aimed at increasing the sensitivity of current and future ground based gravitational wave detectors; if the sensitivity of the detectors is increased, more signals from more types of astrophysical events can be observed.

Gravitational wave astronomy is a very new and exciting as it gives us a completely new way of looking at our universe. I love being a part, even a very small part, of this amazing project.

What does your role involve?

My role involves research, teaching and project management. My research is experimental and involves investigating material properties for use in the mirror suspensions of the detectors. In order to further increase detector sensitivity, future detectors may be operated at cryogenic temperatures. I am investigating material properties at these low temperatures to enable the best design of the mirrors and their suspensions to be determined. This means I spend time in the laboratory working with vacuum systems, cryostats, liquid helium and liquid nitrogen.

 Along with this I attend meetings and conferences to present my work and collaborate with colleagues from around the world. My teaching activities include lecturing and supervision of both undergraduate research project and PhD students. The project management part of my job includes procurement of laboratory equipment and managing research budgets and grants.

How did you get your job? Was it easy? 

I was very lucky that opportunities came up at the right time for me. I carried out my PhD in the research group in which I am currently working. When I finished my PhD I was offered a short-term postdoc contract in the group to cover maternity leave for a colleague, which later turned into a longer term job. After ~5 years as a Research Associate, I successfully applied for my current Research Fellow position.

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

My main advice would be to talk to academic and research staff in the research areas which interests you. Don’t be hesitant about contacting people - although they may be very busy, they are usually happy to give some of their time to discuss their work. This is a great way to get to know more about the field and they may also be able to let you know about potential opportunities.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I love that my job involves such a diverse range of activities. It means each day can be very different, which keeps it interesting, challenging and exciting.

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

I think it is very important to be in a job which you enjoy and which you find challenging. I find that career planning in academia isn’t easy – you just have to keep looking out for opportunities and take them when they arise.

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

I chose to work in the gravitational wave field as it is very multi-disciplinary. I carry out physics, maths and engineering research and I even do a tiny bit of chemistry. The main reason though was because of the link to space science – and the astrophysical events that create the gravitational waves that we are trying to detect.

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

Scientists from many countries work together on large scale science projects such as LIGO, so I wish I had learned more languages.

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

Excluding the gravitational wave detection and the LISA Pathfinder mission results, which of course I am biased towards, the most exciting space related thing I have seen recently was the landing of the boosters that launched SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket into space.

What are some of your favourite things?

My hobbies include going to the theatre, camping and travelling with my husband.  I have a pet tortoise named Kelvin and my favourite time of the year is Christmas!

Author

Emma Collier

Emma studies Physics with Astronomy at the University of Southampton.

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