Danielle worked at Jodrell Bank Observatory as a Senior Radio Frequency Engineer until 2006 when she took up a lectureship at The University of Manchester. Following on from the success of her 2014 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures “Sparks Will Fly: How to Hack Your Home” and wishing to develop a citizen science project during the 2016 European City of Science, she co-founded and developed the “Manchester Robot Orchestra”. In 2018 she was awarded the Royal Society Michael Faraday Medal for excellence in communicating science to the public. She is involved in the astronomical instrument, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), is the UK lead for amplifiers for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope and has worked with NASA and ESA on the development of instrumentation for researchers exploring the Big Bang.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
This is totally nothing to do with my work! But my (recently) 4 year old counted to 100 on her own, no prompting! I felt so happy for her and SO proud.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
For me the ‘wonder’ is the ‘how’ which is the engineer in me and the ‘curiosity’ is the ‘why’ which is the scientist in me. ‘Awe’ brings them together and makes me want to find out more and more about everything. Everyone has a sense of wonder but not everyone uses it. I think we cultivate it by having the confidence to ask when we don’t understand things and to fail along the way and learn from our failures.
Previously you’ve worked at Jodrell Bank Observatory (an iconic and important radio telescope in the UK) and now you contribute to a number of international collaborations (e.g. the Square Kilometre Array). What are the challenges and opportunities of doing research as part of a large team?
Opportunities definitely outweigh the logistical challenges. There is so much knowledge transfer in a large team, we are all always learning something new. The main challenge is usually around timings for teleconferences when you have teams all over the world! My research team think the international travel is great too!
In 2014 you were the presenter for the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures. Can you tell me about that experience? What did you learn through it? And what have been the ripples afterwards?
I think there are very few experiences in ones life that have a profound effect on both your personal and your professional life. The Christmas Lectures did that for me. It was a truly amazing experience. I learnt so many things. How to communicate better with a wider audience, what was possible in the science / technology communication arena but mostly it showed me the amount of curiosity children have for STEM. I was very proud that I presented 8.5 months pregnant too. I got so many wonderful letters (yes, actual written letters) from people of all ages saying it was an inspiration to them / their wife / daughter / granddaughter to have a female professor presenting heavily pregnant.
Since then I have been given so many wonderful opportunities, so carry on communicating my passions in science and engineering. It has helped me in my research to; I am definitely more confident and am able to engage more effectively with all my collaborators.
Why is science and engineering communication so important to you?
Society – including children – has an understanding of what many professions do. E.g. medicine, because we’ve all had first hand experience so it’s ironic that technical innovation, science and hands-on engineering is everywhere but invisible because it’s woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Many people simply don’t know what we do, or why curiosity driven science matters. And why should they if we aren’t out there showing people and helping them understand how ingenious engineers are and why it’s important to tinker – to play – to help your brain think more creatively.
Whilst it is extremely important we show the societal benefits of our research and the positive impact it has, I think there is always a case for ‘blue sky research’ (curiosity driven science) as an important step to making new discoveries. These breakthroughs can eventually lead to new industries, new knowledge and enhance our lives.
I think failure is fantastic! If we do not fail we aren’t innovating and if we aren’t innovating then we aren’t using our creativity in the best way to solve the global challenges we all face. We need to “fail fast and learn”. Our schooling system sadly makes children believe failing is a bad thing. All scientists and engineers do this and children need to know that not only is failing OK, it’s a requirement!
You’re the co-founder of the Manchester Recycled robot orchestra. Why and how did that come about? What reactions has it created (both for participants and audience)?
Manchester was European City of Science (ECoS) in 2016 so I wanted to do 2 things – 1. Get engineering – hands-on science on the map more as part of ECoS and 2. get the public involved more, to have science in the city. I met a wonderful lady called Erinma Ochu who is a lecturer in science communication and so we talked about a citizen engineering project and what we could do that would capture the imagination and the creativity of the people of Manchester. We thought about what would bring the creativity of people who did and who didn’t see themselves as scientists or engineers – maybe who related more with the arts, music. And so we decided on a robot orchestra. But I didn’t want to do another robot orchestra, there are lots out there very high tech and professional. I wanted to do a project where everyone involved is out of their comfort zone. I’m a firm believer that we should all get out of your comfort zone! That’s where the magic happens. And this doesn’t mean you have to achieve all the time – let’s celebrate the failures – they’re fantastic! It seemed to capture the imagination of more people than I ever imagined and we had lots of varied industries and societies who wanted to be involved. But it was the children’s imagination and the results of their tinkering that made the project such a success.
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