Caitriona Jackman went to secondary school at Crescent College Comprehensive in Limerick. From there, she did a degree in Applied Physics at the University of Limerick. During that time she did a 9-month co-op placement at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey. After graduation she moved to the University of Leicester to do a PhD in Planetary Science. She is now working as a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London.
Planetary Scientist Caitriona Jackman
Ask me your
What were the main 'career decision' milestones in your life so far?
I always had a leaning towards maths/physics, and after the first year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Limerick, I went with 20 Irish people to the "London International Youth Science Forum".
This is an annual 2-week science trip for people from all over the world. We had lectures on all types of science, and also day trips to universities and research centres near London. I went out to the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, part of University College London, and was fascinated by the people I met there.
In the 3rd year of my degree we needed to find a 9-month work placement, and I ended up going back to the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. There I worked on Cassini data for the first time and that sparked my interest to go on and pursue my PhD in planetary science.
Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
My parents have always been extremely supportive, both emotionally and financially (I was self-funded for my PhD – as a non-UK student I was ineligible for funding from the research council there).
I have always been pretty sure of what I wanted to do, and have been very lucky to have supportive family and friends, and to have encountered many good opportunities along my path. My PhD supervisor at Leicester was also a great inspiration, very knowledgeable and helpful.
How did you go about getting your current job?
While I was at Leicester doing my PhD, the job advert was sent around a mailing list that I had subscribed to. I applied straight away, and it was actually the first application I made so I was very lucky!
The interview required me to give an overview talk discussing my research and ideas for future work, followed by technical questions, and then a personal interview. I was then offered the job and I accepted straight away.
Describe a typical day?
Imperial College London is based in South Kensington which is a really nice part of London. I usually get in around 9:30 and after a few minutes of gossiping/checking email/facebook, I get down to work!
The main portion of my job is research, and I try to have one primary project on the go at any given time, although occasionally ideas will crop up and I will be working on multiple papers.
My research involves a lot of computer programming. I work with data from the magnetometer on the Cassini spacecraft which is in orbit around the planet Saturn. I plot out this data using computer programs, and study the magnetic environment around Saturn, looking for unusual deflections of the magnetic field etc. and trying to interpret what they mean.
On any given paper that I write I usually have several co-authors or people that I am collaborating with, so I talk to them over email, teleconference, or face to face at meetings, and we discuss ideas and interpret the data.
Another portion of my job is teaching, and I currently demonstrate in the first year undergraduate labs, and also run small projects for undergrads in the summer term.
At Imperial, we are the Principal Investigators on the Cassini magnetometer instrument. We have a team of spacecraft operations people who send commands to the spacecraft, and process the data that comes back.
We have had an extension of funding for the Cassini mission so I am currently involved with planning the trajectories for the extended mission. This means that I work with spacecraft operations staff at Imperial, but also those based at the jet Propulsion Laboratory, part of NASA in California. Because they are 8 hours behind us in California, that means I have to stay late one night a week to have a mission planning teleconference with them.
So when I'm in London, a typical day is research, some teaching, and the occasional teleconference. I then attend international conferences a few times a year where I present my work, so I have to prepare talks or posters for these. I also give talks at schools, local astronomy clubs etc.
What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
What are the main challenges?
Meeting deadlines for conferences and speaking in front of large groups of senior scientists about new work can be daunting at times, but it gets easier with practice!
Also, by its very nature, scientific research is always pioneering and new, so I have to come up with original ideas, and new approaches to old problems.
There is not necessarily a "right answer" that you can check your calculations against, so you do sometimes have to stick your neck out and come up with a theory. Someone else can then come along and say that they think you're wrong and you have to defend yourself, hopefully based on sound scientific principles!
It’s cool that the work I’m involved with makes the news on a regular basis. For example, when Cassini flew past the moon Enceladus and the data indicated that there was a plume of water ions coming out of the moon, that made the news.
That discovery was led by the magnetometer team, of which I am a member, so it’s great to see the general public interested in what we do!
It's also nice to get to travel to conferences all around the world. I have been to meetings in San Francisco, Texas, Vienna, Italy, Germany, Wales....
What's not so cool?
What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
For Leaving Certificate I did the usual English, Irish, Maths, then Physics which I loved, Chemistry which I wasn’t great at (kept breaking stuff in the practicals), French, Geography and Music as an extra. I really enjoyed English actually, and even though a lot of my job involves computer programming and some hard maths and physics, I still rely heavily on my writing skills.
As important as it is to have technical ability in my job, it is still crucial to be able to communicate any results I find. One of the main tasks for me is to write papers for scientific journals, and occasionally to write articles for a more general audience.
My French is also useful because I collaborate with several people from a lab in Paris and they like if I make an effort to speak a bit of French, even though my accent is very embarrassing!
What is your education to date?
I went to secondary school at Crescent College Comprehensive in Limerick. Following on from there, I did a degree in Applied Physics at the University of Limerick.
During that time I did a 9-month co-op placement at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey, and after graduation I moved to the University of Leicester to do a PhD in Planetary Science.
My PhD took me just under 3 years, and then I moved down to London to start my current job, as a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
For me, my co-op placement was definitely the major stepping stone to my current career. It was my first chance to work with data from the Cassini spacecraft, which I then continued during my PhD.
I knew that I enjoyed physics while I was at university, but I would really urge people to try to arrange a work placement in the “real world” to get a feel for the day-to-day tasks that you might be doing in the future.
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
My PhD graduation day was very special. It felt like all the work was worth it, and I went into the bank the next day to change all my credit cards to say “Dr. Jackman” which is possibly a bit sad, but I wanted to do it!! Seeing my first paper appear in print in a journal was also a really nice moment.
What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
What is your dream job?
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
My job is very flexible time-wise, which is good as I would definitely not describe myself as a morning person! It is also quite self-directed.
When I have deadlines, or when I’m feeling extra inspired/motivated, I work long hours, some evenings and weekends. In contrast, there are quieter periods where the working hours are not so rigid.
The travel to international conferences is also a great perk. I feel very lucky to do my job.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
If you are considering full-time scientific research, try to get a work placement in a university department so you can see first hand what it’s like. It’s a relatively relaxed, flexible environment, but there is a certain degree of self-motivation needed.
So I would say you need to be able to push yourself and be proactive in terms of setting up collaborations with other scientists etc.
What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?
I have gone on several public speaking and media training courses. Also, because my job requires a reasonably high level of computer programming skill, I am always learning on the job.
I may at some point do some further training, but I’m less than two years out of my PhD, so I think I need a little bit of a break from exams!
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Any kind of work placement in a university department, or maybe even research in industry. There are lots of summer programs for university level students, e.g. The International Space University, or internships at the European Space Agency.
These are really good ways to get experience working in the space sector.
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