Louise McCaul, Project Manager at STFC RAL Space, and former UKSEDS Treasurer.Credit: Louise McCaul
Louise McCaul, Project Manager at STFC RAL Space, and former UKSEDS Treasurer.

Interview

Louise McCaul

Project Manager at STFC RAL Space


Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Louise McCaul and I work as a project manager for STFC RAL Space, which is part of UK Research and Innovation. I completed an MPhys in Theoretical Physics from the University of St Andrews in 2017 then joined STFC on the graduate scheme. I was a bit unsure what direction I wanted my career to take, having decided not to pursue a PhD, but I was keen to still do something involved in research, especially in the space industry.

What does your role involve?

My job is basically to make sure that we deliver projects on time and on budget. I am involved in numerous projects where RAL Space is making an instrument, or a sub-system of an instrument, that will end up on a spacecraft. This often means being involved with customers or consortia with lots of deadlines, if we do not complete our part on time, it can have a big impact. It is my responsibility to make sure the RAL team are on track and that any problems that impact the schedule are dealt with as quickly as possible. I have responsibility for tracking the spend on a project, to try and ensure we keep within the budget. 

I also have involvement in the bid stage for new projects, this means creating schedules and costings for new projects and presenting the plan to senior management to get approval before the bid can be submitted. 

Tell us how you went from theoretical physics student to project manager...

I was at a bit of a loose end as to what to do next when I finished my degree. I had intended to go on to PhD study but after completing my final year project I decided that I didn't want to continue in further research at that time. 

After some travelling, I was back home and unemployed for a number of months, considering a range of careers though I was always enthusiastic about space. I came across the STFC graduate scheme, which covers jobs in most of STFC's facilities, including RAL Space. As STFC is a research council, the focus of their work in space is for scientific goals, instead of defence, and includes research and development as well as designing and manufacturing for space missions. I saw that there was a graduate project manager job and felt I would enjoy this role, as it would combine still being close to science and research, but also involving a lot of organising. 

Throughout my university career I had enjoyed organising and planning things from society trips to small events and student feedback, so I figured some of these would be useful skills for project management. 

The recruitment process involved submitting a CV and cover letter, a telephone interview, some online tests and then an assessment centre. 


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

The space industry is extremely diverse, it takes a lot more than just an enthusiastic bunch of engineers to make a space instrument, we rely on a lot of technicians too, as well as finance and legal support, project managers, product assurance specialists, scientists, data scientists and many many more! 

Project management in particular draws on a lot of skills that can be learnt in a wide variety of places, so a degree specifically related to (aero)space is not necessarily required to join the space industry in project management.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I enjoy the range of projects that I am involved in, and that I have to communicate with project teams, customers, the finance and legal departments and senior management, which gives insight to the project process as a whole, as well as the wider organisation.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

One of the most challenging parts has been being at a more junior level that most of the people working on the projects I'm managing. I started off assisting more experienced project managers but then moved on to managing them mostly by myself and sometimes worry that I don't have the authority to make decisions about the project, or that an engineer with 20 years' experience won't agree with something I'm trying to do. However there is always more senior support from a project director, and confidence comes with experience, and frequent communication with a team will ensure that for the most part everyone is on the same page.

Tell us about your involvement with UKSEDS...

I attended my first National Student Space Conference in my 2nd year and made sure our Astro society affiliated after that. Attending NSSC certainly opened my eyes to the range of careers within the space sector and numerous attendances to the conference meant I was able to develop a sense of the key players and the direction of the industry in the UK. 

It is probably because of attending UKSEDS events that I looked for a career in the space sector. 

After graduating I was elected Treasurer of UKSEDS and served on exec for a year, widening my space sector network and gaining more insight into key UK stakeholders and diversity issues, as well as being involved in outreach and the planning of the NSSC in 2019. I hope this experience will continue to be beneficial in my career.

When did you become interested in space?

I had always been interested in science and especially space, but attending Space School UK while at school cemented my choice for university study in physics/astrophysics.

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

In hindsight a theoretical physics degree wasn't the best preparation for working in a very engineering environment, but at that point I had no clear plan of ending up in space engineering. So I think as broad a set of experiences as possible is important, a few more applied modules here and there would maybe have been better, though I did do a lot of astrophysics modules which have stood me in good stead for understanding the science goals of the missions I work on.

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

The most exciting thing for me at the moment is the emergence of quantum technologies for space, as it nicely links my physics background to my current space job. The fact that the advancement of laser cooling, other optics systems or creation of entangled pairs of photons for space applications could allow us to use quantum systems as sensors in space to measure the Earth's (and other bodies') gravity, investigate fundamental physics, or supply extremely secure communications is fascinating.

 

Author

Áine O'Brien

Áine is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her PhD project involves the search for organic materials in martian meteorites. As a former high school Physics and Astronomy Teacher, she is passionate about encouraging young people into the Space Sector.

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