Friday, 17 January 2014

The Real Deal: Dr. Sarah Kendrew, Astronomer and Engineer

Photo Credit: RD Alexander
Today we meet a researcher and engineer whose work crosses the boundaries between science and engineering. She says she's inspired by: 
"people who lead interesting and varied lives, who never lose their passion, and who aren't afraid to speak up for what they believe in" 
...but we think that description sums her up pretty well too! We've been inspired by her passion and enthusiasm and hope you will be too. We particularly like her advice to her younger self "don't worry, you'll be fine". Brilliant! 

So with the usual questions, High Heels in the Lab is pleased to introduce you to Dr. Sarah Kendrew...
(You can also catch up with her on twitter: @sarahkendrew

What do you do and give 3 words that describe how you got there?
I'm a postdoctoral researcher and engineer in astronomy, and I just moved from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg (Germany) to the Astrophysics department at the University of Oxford in early September (2013). A major part of my work is developing new and novel instruments for the world's largest telescopes, here on Earth or in space. I have worked on, or am currently involved in, instrument projects for the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and for two major observatories of the future, the European Extremely Large Telescope and the joint US/European/Canadian James Webb Space Telescope. In parallel with my instrumentation work I carry out astrophysical research into how massive stars form throughout the Milky Way Galaxy. So my work is a nice combination of "pure" research and projects that produce real hardware.

Three words: Love, Sweat, Airmiles.

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?
I think I wanted to become an explorer. I wanted to be on a ship for years and discover a new continent. Of course, I soon realised we'd discovered all the continents already by the 1980s, and I think I'd have been rubbish on a ship. But I guess I was something of an academic from childhood.

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?
I like learning new things, and finding solutions to difficult problems, and that pretty much sums up research really. What I love about academia is having the freedom to think, develop my own ideas, and find creative solutions. That is an amazing luxury. And I get to work with some of the brightest people around.

What is the one thing you'd love to achieve in your research?
Research is incredibly slow and hard work so I try to keep my goals realistic! I'd like to achieve some independence in my work, the freedom to choose what problems I tackle and the opportunity to teach and work with students. But I would never want career success to come above all else: I want to be a happy, interesting and well-adjusted person, more than "just" an excellent scientist.

Scientists have a lot to contribute to moral, legal, cultural and political discussions in society and I think as a community we should be getting more involved in those debates. I find that quite an important aspect of what we do really. What's the point of writing papers if you're not making a valued contribution to society and people's lives?

What is the best/worst thing about your job?
It's great to be in an job where it's actually considered cool to try something different, to innovate, to have crazy ideas. As telescopes tend to be in very remote locations, I get to travel to some amazing places as well, like the Atacama desert. Travelling can be lonely and stressful, but it's always worthwhile in the end.

The worst thing is the academic career structure, which is incredibly tough with 2-3 year contracts, lots of pressure and competition. This means that lots of very bright people move into other industries despite really loving their research, because they're tired, burnt out or simply not able to get a job near their loved ones. That's a big loss for science.

It also makes it very hard for young scientists to really follow through on those crazy ideas: to stay in the game you can't afford to take too many wrong turns. Unfortunately, science doesn't really work that way.

What do you enjoy other than science?
I'm quite sporty, I'm out running 4 or 5 days a week, and when I'm not running I might be in a swimming pool somewhere. Running is the perfect sport for my busy travel schedule and irregular hours - all it takes is a good pair of shoes. But I equally enjoy (maybe secretly more?) lazing around with a book or watching a movie. I also love playing in chamber music ensembles when I have the time to practice my scales!

What would be your ideal holiday?
Skiing in perfect powder snow under a crispy blue sky, then falling asleep with a glass of wine in front of the fireplace.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise?)
I'm inspired by people who lead interesting and varied lives, who never lose their passion, and who aren't afraid to speak up for what they believe in. Thankfully such people exist in all walks of life, past and present, in science as well in the arts. I'm fortunate to have some very inspirational people in my everyday life and work as well.

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?
Don't worry: you'll be absolutely fine.

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