siaa_logo_blue Helen Walker helen_circle

STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

Didcot, Oxfordshire, UK
Job Title: MIRI Test Team Leader


'She is an Astronomer': What stage have you reached in your career?

Helen Walker: I am at the top of the mid-level range in the career structure here (it used to be called Senior Scientific Officer, but now has the glorious title of Band 4), and I have some great projects to work on. I work in the Satellite Operations Group at RAL, helping scientists plan their science observations on the Mars Express satellite, under contract to the European Space Agency. About two years ago I took over the role of RAL group’s Mars Express Project Scientist in recognition of the level of understanding about the satellite operations I had achieved. Recently I was asked to take over leading the Test Team for MIRI, the mid-infrared instrument being built by a European Consortium for the James Webb Space Telescope (Hubble’s successor).

hw_ground_station_smallSIAA: How long have you been in Astronomy?

HW: I graduated from the University of St Andrews with a PhD in Astronomy in 1979, so I am celebrating my doctorate’s 30 th anniversary. I have been involved with astronomical satellites, either as a ‘user’ or in a support role, during my PhD and ever since. In the mid-1990s I was Head of the UK ISO Support Group and a Co-Investigator on the ISO Photometer (ISO was the Infrared Space Observatory – an ESA satellite), and I had responsibility for 10 staff. The role I have now with Mars Express (as the group’s Project Scientist) has more responsibility to the European science community and gains me considerable respect, but is less measurable in the system at RAL. In addition I am Senior Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society and currently President of the Society for Popular Astronomy, both of which positions give me considerable pleasure.

SIAA: Do you feel that it was more difficult for you to get a job or a promotion in comparison with male astronomers?

HW: I have now spent as long in a permanent post as I did on fixed-term contracts. It took me a full five years to get tenure at RAL, which is unusually long, and I have never been considered for promotion, in my twenty years at RAL. It is very difficult for anyone at my level to get promoted, but the statistics show that the percentage of women is low at the next level is low. Almost 14% of the staff in the department is female, but this includes everyone (secretaries, apprentices, administration people, as well as scientists), and only 7% of the projects in our departmental brochure have women named as contact points. There are no women as division heads, and in RAL (and STFC) in general very few women are promoted to senior positions, so it is very much like a UK university.

SIAA: What is your family status?

HW: I am single, never married (my boyfriends could never keep up with me changing jobs, and countries), with an elderly mother. I have never had a career break, or a sabbatical. I am now getting more worried that employers are not so sympathetic when you need to take a day off for a sick parent as they are for a sick child, and even car-parking at shops have bays for mothers and children, but not children with frail, elderly parents.

SIAA: How many hours per day do you normally dedicate to work?

HW: I enjoy my work, and I enjoy being (too) busy. I try to keep to a 10-hour day (8 hours for ‘them’ and 2 hours for me for RAS, SPA, research, whatever), but I am too loyal to the job for my own good and I will work late to finish something, if I think it needs doing. I do have a life outside work, I play croquet badly and I learnt to ring church bells recently (also badly, because for both hobbies I do not practice enough). I love travelling, seeing ruins and cities (not beaches).

SIAA: What would most help you advance your career and what recommendation would you make to young women starting their career in astronomy?

HW: I would like RAL to recognise the contribution I make, and this would normally be through promotion, but that’s not going to happen. I do not fit the accepted model, and I enjoy my semi-detached status working with scientists outside the UK. I enjoyed the fixed-term contracts (although 10 years rather than 15 years would have been nicer) because it forced me to think about my priorities, and in my case astronomy always won. So I would say to any young woman starting out, you will have more opportunities than I did, but make time for reality checks and be sure you are still enjoying the work you do, most of the time.