Danielle, Radio Frequency Engineer



I’m a professor of radio frequency engineering at the University of Manchester. My research is to help solve one of 14 world engineering grand challenges - so I engineer the tools for scientific discovery, which basically means I design instrumentation, largely for space and aerospace applications. I also teach, normally first year students but also MSE students, and I also have 3rd year project students, PhD students, and research associates. And for my sins I’m also the Vice Dean for Teaching and Learning for the faculty, so that means devolved responsibility from the Dean to be responsible for the whole of the teaching and learning with in the entire faculty of Science and Engineering. Another quite big part of my job now is public engagement. I’m doing a bit more radio work, a bit more television and bits and bobs like that. Doing the Royal Institution Christmas lectures on the BBC for me was a massive springboard into something that I had never thought about doing ever. Yeah, doing it when you’re 8 and a half months pregnant as well…Though in a weird way that sort of calmed me down, because well, obviously I hadn’t done any television or anything before so it was like well, if it goes wrong or I say the wrong words or I fluff it, it’s not a massive deal. If I give birth right there – that’s a massive deal. So as long as that doesn’t happen, if I forget a few lines - so what?


It’s funny, I never thought about being an academic ever. Before I became a lecturer, I worked at Jodrell Bank and I really enjoyed it. I went there to do an MSc and that was really fun and it was always very practical – the kind of stuff that I love doing, and then a job came along for a junior engineer and I was like, that sounds fun because it’s kind of carrying on with doing what I had been doing. So I sort of fell into that, then someone said, ‘why don’t you write up your work as a PhD?’. So I did a funny thing with my PhD, I worked full time and I did a full-time PhD at the same time - now that sounds horrendous, but they weren’t completely separate because really what I was doing was writing up what I was already doing on a day-to-day basis. Of course it was a lot of work, and writing up a thesis isn’t part of your normal job so that was quite difficult. Then, whilst I was doing that, someone said that there was a lectureship position in the School of Electronic Engineering, and literally the day after I handed in my viva, I had an interview for the lectureship and I was very lucky that I got the role, and then it just sort of evolved from there really. But like at school, I knew I wanted to do something with science for sure, but I didn’t really know what engineering was at the time and especially not electronic engineering. I just knew that I loved maths and physics and I loved putting them to work and actually that equals engineering for me -but it didn’t at the time. So, I knew I wanted to do something practical and something with science, but I never thought ‘let’s be a professor of engineering’.


I think the thing I really love about my job is that it’s so different every day, in fact not even every day, every hour it’s very different and that’s what I really like. I love being challenged in my job, so teaching brings a massively different challenge to me than research, it’s not better or worse, it’s just different - but it’s just something I love, the different challenges that I get from it. Also, I love to see other people’s success and to think actually I had a little part of that - it might just be a little part - but I had a little part in how successful they are now, and I think that’s what I love about working with PhD student’s as well. That really drives me with my research - seeing how well my PhD students do, and you know, where they go. It’s really nice, I’ve got PhD students that are from so many different countries around the world now and they all keep in touch, so it’s great to hear about their successes and where they are going, I suppose in a way it’s a bit egotistical because it’s sort of, yes I had a small part in that, you know, aren’t I great, but that’s what gives me a really nice feeling – that all these people are doing really well and in a little way I helped them to do that. I really believe that to do this job you really need that fire in your belly, and I’ve always said that the minute I don’t have the fire in my belly about teaching, I’ll stop, because you really need that passion, especially for students because they’re the next generation, you need to be able to inspire them and if you aren’t passionate about what you’re talking about, how on earth can they be inspired by it?


I would say I am probably quite a confident person, and I’m pleased that I’m like that because I think that’s helped me. It’s not really a conscious confidence, it’s just something that I guess I’ve always had from growing up, like that you would take for granted because that’s just the way you are and then you realise that actually not everyone is like that. So I’ve always felt very lucky for that, and now that I’m a mam, I want to make sure that I do that for my daughter too. So I say to my mam, ‘what was it?’ and she’s like, ‘oh I don’t know that’s just the way we were, you know, there’s not like an instruction manual on it, you just have to be yourself’. But I want to make sure that Elizabeth is like that when she grows up because, having that kind of confidence I think really helps you. I don’t know how you do it and yeah, if you find out, tell every parent you know because they really want to know it. I guess some of it is just appreciating what you’ve got and being very thankful and having manners and all of those things that make you sort of a nice person, and just making sure all of that is instilled. Maybe we don’t see it for as massive an attribute as we should, you know, because it is a big thing - and to be nice and to be decent and to have your own morals standards, so as long as that’s not compromised and you’re confident in what you’re doing - it really doesn’t matter if someone else thinks what you’ve done is wrong or right as long as you think it’s right then that’s what should count. And especially if you’re interested in engineering, you need to have the confidence to question lots of things - that could be questioning yourself, questioning role models that you have, questioning your teachers, questioning your parents, questioning someone on the television. Whatever it is, keep questioning because you need that as a scientist and an engineer, you need to challenge everything, and that includes yourself.


When I had my daughter, it was difficult going from quite a lot of work, 60 hour weeks, to being on maternity leave, where you’ve got this thing who, you are it’s world and it’s very functional - this isn’t to put you off having children because it is the most wonderful thing in the world - but my personal feeling is that those first months are functional - it’s not a two way thing. You are keeping this thing alive, and you know all she needed in my case was to be fed, to be watered, to have her nappy changed, to sleep, and to make sure that all of those things were done for her. And so you go from this quite high powered job doing lots of things, having these massive challenges - to doing this one thing, which is the most wonderful thing in the world, but it’s functional and in many ways it’s not creative in that first month. You try to make it as creative as you can. So my thing to get me through it, which I didn’t realise at the time but looking back this was obviously my coping mechanism, was that I said, right I’m walking 8 km every day, that’s what I was doing, Elizabeth and I were out, walking - why 8 km I have no idea - but it was 8 km, so that’s what I did, so we’d walk to a coffee shop, we’d walk into town, walk where ever. Then I could say, ‘okay I have achieved something as well as being this functional thing for my daughter, I have achieved something, I have walked 8 km a day’. It was a funny thing looking back, but it really helped me.


I fully support all the activities that go on around Women in STEM and International Women’s Day, but I want to get to a point such that it’s just a part of everyone’s everyday psyche - that women do science they do engineering and that it’s very normal, whereas it’s not very normal at the moment. I want to get to a point where there isn’t an International Women’s day, there might be an International Day, but it’s not a women’s thing and we don’t have to have a Women in Science campaign, but we are not there yet and therefore we have to do these things and try to change the stereotype. I’ll always remember as I was going up there was a very famous actress, 1930’s/40’s because I love black and white movies, and she’s called Hedy Lamarr. She was very big in American movies and very beautiful, very famous, and very accomplished, but actually she was also partly responsible for something we use today in engineering. It’s called spread spectrum and she helped develop that originally for torpedoes for the US Navy. So in the war, if you know exactly where torpedoes are, you know exactly where it’s going and what it’s going to do. If you can have a signal that moves around in that channel, so the frequency hops around, then you can make the torpedo think it’s going somewhere else, and you can deflect the torpedo. So she developed this frequency hopping, spread spectrum technique, and that is Bluetooth and wireless that we all use right now - what all our mobile devices will be doing is hopping around that frequency looking for the best signal and that’s exactly what she developed. But she was this beautiful actress in American movies and I think that’s what’s really good about it was that, wow you can be this amazingly accomplished person doing this one thing, and something else as well. And it goes back to not pigeon holing people, you know, everyone can be creative in their own way.

Find out more about Danielle's research by reading her profile, or check out her twitter to see what she is up to currently. Also, hear what Danielle thinks makes a strong Manchester woman by watching this video shot as part of Manchester's International Women's Day celebrations.

Rhys Archer