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Software Engineer

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Printed Circuit Board Designer

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Introduction to careers in space research

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Name: Elizabeth Auden

Job title: Software Engineer

What education and qualifications do you have?

I have a B.S.E. with a double major in electrical engineering and physics (1999) and an M.S.E. in electrical engineering (2000) with concentrations in signal processing and control theory. Both degrees are from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. The senior project for my B.S.E. was a feasibility analysis of alternative energy usage at the New Orleans Audubon Zoo, while my master's thesis was the design and construction of a radio telescope. During my first degree I participated in a "year abroad" programme at the Imperial College department of physics.

Give an outline of your career so far

I have been working in science, technical, and computer related jobs since my first year of university in 1995. I was a student intern for two years in a polymer fluorescence lab at the Tulane department of physics; although I discovered very little of interest in polymers, I found great enthusiam for lasers and computer programming!

I also spent two years as an intern for the Tulane department of electrical engineering setting up web servers, writing web pages, and tutoring HTML. This led to a summer job at the Naval Research Laboratory in Stennis AFB, Mississippi working on a navigation software project called "Fusion".

During my second degree I worked for Entergy, Inc modelling thermal activity in power line transformers. Once I finished university, I moved to the UK and worked as a software consultant. This job involved writing programs for "middleware", which is software that glues together other computer programs and databases. One of the great benefits of being a consultant was travelling all over Europe and the UK. Finally, in October of 2001, I got the chance to combine software engineering with space science at MSSL.

Why did you choose this career path?

When I was 16 years old, I decided to become an astronomer. When I asked for advice, two astronomers at Vanderbilt University told me to get a degree in physics with maths or engineering. "That way, if you still love astronomy when you finish university, you'll have a great background. If you're bored senseless by astronomy, you'll still have a great background." I used that advice to shape my university education; professors allowed me to tailor projects, papers, and elective courses around my interest in space science. While my physics courses exposed me to the mechanics behind space objects - light, thermodynamics, relativity, cosmology, and electromagnetism, my engineering courses taught me about the instruments and data analysis techniques used to study space. Not all of my jobs have involved space, but they have all involved computers. With each position I learned new software, different programming languages, and better technical architecture skills. I like software engineering because I can work with data on any subject - galaxies, power lines, or the price of baked beans - and my brain gets to be logical and creative at the same time.

Software engineering goes beyond computer programming; I have written computer programs in all of my jobs, but I have only been a software engineer during my last two jobs. What's the difference? Before writing a single line of code, a software engineer finds out what the software needs to do, how much it can cost, and how soon it needs to be ready. Next, the best hardware, support software, programming languages, computer environments, and schedule are selected and modelled on paper. Only then can a software engineer begin programming computers!

What does your current work involve?

My two primary projects are Astrogrid and the XMM-Newton Optical Monitor. I provide technical architecture for Astrogrid, which is a software system that will let astronomers share and analyse data over the internet. With XMM-Newton, I am calibrating the ultraviolet filters on the Optical Monitor. Work at MSSL is quite varied - since I began working at the lab, I have also written navigation software for a gamma ray burst satellite called Swift. In addition, I have written data analysis software and webpages, and soon I'll begin working on a new datagrid project called the European Grid of Solar Observatories. If that's not enough variety, my job also sends me around the UK (and sometimes even outside the UK!) several times a month.

Hobbies and interests outside work

My latest hobby is working on a part-time Ph D in gamma ray bursts. When I'm not at the lab, I like travelling, hiking, reading and cooking. I wish I had the time to paint, invent, sculpt, sew, learn 87 languages, take harp lessons. Then again, there's only 23 hours and 56 minutes in a day.