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Fostering International Collaboration for Astronomy - Meet Dr. Elizabeth George from ESO

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by Impactpool

As a part of Impactpool's March 2023 gender parity awareness campaign for women in STEM, we would like to share short employee spotlights from international STEM professional women working at some of the most important international organizations in the world.

Meet Dr. Elizabeth George, a Detector Engineer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) headquarters in Garching, Germany.

Photographer: Diana Levine

What was your background prior to joining ESO?

I studied physics in the USA and got my PhD in Physics in 2013. My PhD was focused on building superconducting detectors and integrating them into a camera for the South Pole Telescope. This involved a lot of lab work testing detectors in preparation for deployment to the south pole each year, then many months at the telescope installing and testing the new cameras. I built skills in cryogenics, solid state physics, electronics, control software, and data analysis during this time.
I moved to Europe in 2014 and worked as a PostDoc on infrared instrumentation for the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The focus of this work was mostly optics and heavily used the skills from my PhD in cryogenics and data analysis. I also built skills in project management and instrument science during this time and expanded my professional network within Europe and in a new sub-field of astronomy.

How did you find out about ESO and what motivated you to apply?

I had worked on an instrument for ESO’s VLT during my PostDoc which meant that I regularly met with ESO personnel in the course of my project work and travelled to ESO observatories for instrument installation and observing runs. When my PostDoc was coming to an end, there were a few openings in the Detector Group at ESO. Several people at ESO who knew of my background in detectors and recent instrumentation work encouraged me to apply. My technical passion is detectors and I already knew that ESO would be a good fit for me from my previous work on ESO projects, so it was an easy decision to apply for the job.

Describe your typical workday. What projects are you working on right now?

My main task as a Detector Systems Engineer is to deliver detector systems to ESO’s instruments. This means responsibility for the system design, procurement, integration, testing, and delivery of systems to the instruments. This work is highly collaborative with people both inside and outside my department at ESO. Right now I am working on the detector system for the HARMONI spectrograph for the ELT (design phase), MOONS spectrograph for the VLT (integration and test phase). I am also working a bit with ESA on development of detector models for pyxel, a detector simulator that will be used by the ELT instruments.
An interesting point is that I don’t have a “typical” workday. Every day is different! On the system design side, I would analyze the instrument requirements and design a detector system with the optimal detectors and readout to reach the science goals of the instrument. This involves meetings and discussion with the instrument systems engineer and instrument scientist for each project, and then detailed work with the mechanical and electronics engineers to design components of the system. 

Then we would produce documentation of the design for the instrument reviews. I also do some project management tasks like budgeting and scheduling for the detector systems that I feed to the main project manager.

Once we start the integration and test phase of a project, I spend more time in the lab. One day I might be down in the clean room inspecting and mounting a detector with a colleague. Another I would be in the lab installing the detector in a test cryostat and setting up to run optical tests. Experiment setup often involves a decent amount of debugging hardware or getting new parts made to run new tests, in which case I would work with a mechanical engineer to help design the new setup and visit our machine shop to get the parts made.
A good chunk of my time is taken testing detectors while they are cooled to cryogenic temperatures, which interestingly means that I can actually do some lab tests from my home or office via a remote connection. One of our goals as a group is to optimize detector performance for ESO’s instruments, so we spend a lot of time trying out new ways to operate the detectors to squeeze out the best performance.
Analyzing the detector data is a big part of my job, so I do a lot of developing analysis protocols, simulating detector effects, and programming in python. This tends to be very collaborative work, since many projects use similar detectors and different members of the group have different experiences they can bring to the table. Finally, there is an academic component to my work. I stay up to date on the latest developments with new detectors by attending conferences and reading papers. We have a bi-weekly detector coffee where members of the group present papers or their own work for discussion.

From your perspective, what set of skills do you find valuable for your current work at ESO?

The technical skills are very important. Every single day I am using some technical skill like programming or engineering skills in the lab and I rely on my physics and optics knowledge regularly. Also I do a lot more writing then I would have expected, since documentation of our work is very important. But truly the most important skill is being flexible and able to collaborate with many different people in many different roles within and outside of ESO. The projects we work on are big and can take up to a decade to be completed. There are people from all over the world with different working styles and skills, so keeping an open mind and a positive attitude towards shared challenges is a must to be successful.

Any tips you can share with potential applicants who are considering joining ESO?

If you are applying in engineering, showcase your technical skills, since this is very important for the day-to-day work. Ability to collaborate in a positive way with people with all different backgrounds and experiences is critical for success at ESO, so be sure to show your skills in this area.

How has your experience at ESO been so far?

I’ve been at ESO 6 years now and plan to stay long-term. I have really enjoyed working at ESO for both the supportive and collaborative atmosphere in my group, as well as exposure to an international working community. A big surprise to me is how different working styles are in different cultures even within Europe. I’ve really enjoyed learning these and now have a much better appreciation of the fact that there is no one right way to do things. It’s made my mindset a lot more flexible. It’s also fun to walk into the cafeteria and hear a different language being spoken at every table! I’ve recently returned from maternity leave and have been pleasantly surprised by how much I looked forward to returning to work.

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