Microwaves to Musical Robots: A Career in Engineering

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Danielle George is a Professor of Microwave Communication Engineering at the University of Manchester and the incoming President of the Institution of Engineering and technology.

Starting her career as a scientist, Danielle studied astrophysics at university. However, she quickly discovered the allure of engineering and, after choosing the more practical subjects during her studies, secured her very first job as a junior engineer working on the Planck satellite.

Today, Danielle’s research is largely dedicated to engineering the tools of scientific discovery – one of the 14 grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century. She is the UK lead for amplifiers in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project and has worked with NASA and the European Space Agency to further our exploration of the Big Bang.

Danielle is just as likely to be seen in the mainstream media. She makes regular appearances on TV programmes and podcasts, raising public awareness of the global positive impact of engineering and informing the next generation of the myriad opportunities a career in STEM can offer. In 2014, she became the sixth woman to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture since its inception in 1825. She was honoured with an MBE and awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Rooke Award for the Public Promotion of Engineering in 2016, and the Michael Faraday Prize by the Royal Society in 2018.

In this episode of Create the Future, we explore Danielle’s varied career from her work on the Planck satellite through to her current projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope. We discuss the importance of science communication in the mainstream media, her reflections on International Women in Engineering Day, and what it was like to co-found the world’s first recycled robot orchestra.

Episode Highlights

  • "The Manchester Recycled Robot Orchestra came about as an idea when Manchester was named European City of Science back in 2016 ... There had been citizen science projects out there, but I'd never heard of a citizen engineering project. So, I wanted to try and engage the public, and especially young children, with engineering. I thought: 'well, what would capture people's imagination?' and so I thought 'well, robots' because everybody loves robots, don't they?
  • "The Square Kilometre Array is still being built at the moment, but it is a network of hundreds and thousands of antennas of different types. So you might have the dipoles, like the old antennas that we had – aerials that we had on top of our houses – and then dishes as well. And it is effectively one square kilometre worth of collecting area, but it's spread across Western Australia and in remote areas in South Africa. When you join them all up – there's hundreds of thousands of these things all dotted around – when you join them up, it's effectively like having a massive dish that would have a collecting area of one square kilometre. It will be 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument in the world, and it is a tremendous project to work on because there are so many engineering challenges to work on. It will be a fabulous science instrument when it's all built, and whilst it's being built it is a fabulous engineering instrument to work on. So many great challenges."
  • On her title as Professor of Microwave Communication Engineering: "what it doesn't involve is creating microwave ovens, which is what I'm sure my friends still think I do. In the electromagnetic spectrum, there is an area just next to the radio waves called microwaves, and they are slightly higher in energy, slightly smaller wavelengths, higher in frequency. And so, I work on radio telescopes and trying to capture the naturally occurring radiation that is emitted in both the radio and the microwave regions of the spectrum. And that radiation is emitted all over the universe and so I work with lots of other engineers and scientists to create new instruments for radio telescopes to try and capture that really distant cosmic light."
  • "I really love challenges, and I think that's probably true of any engineer and scientist. I love the challenges and I love the fact that they get me out of my comfort zone. ... I also dealt with failure quite a long time ago in a positive way. At the beginning of my career, I was a lot more upset when things didn't work. And now I embrace failure because it's such a huge part of being an engineer or a scientist – all of the failures you have along the way to get to your success. I've very much adopted the fail fast and learn approach and want to celebrate the failures as well."

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