Dr Karen Donaldson, Postdoctoral Research Associate

I love the knowledge diversity of people that I work with in the Soft Robotics group, which is made up of individuals that have qualifications and knowledge in chemistry, biology, physics and several types of engineering such as mechanical, robotic, marine and electronic as well as computational programming.”

Dr Karen M Donaldson, Soft Systems Group, Institute for Integrated Micro and Nano Systems

Dr Karen Donaldson is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate (PDRA) in the School’s Soft Systems Group, which uses a wide range of bioinspired engineering approaches to tackle the most challenging issues facing society. Before joining the School earlier this year, Karen was based at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow where, in between travelling, she completed her undergraduate degree in Physics, an MSc in High Power Radio Frequency Science and Engineering, and a PhD in Space Beam-Wave Interaction Physics, before progressing to the role of Research Associate position in the Space Mechatronics (SMeSTech) Lab.

Here, Dr Donaldson talks about her career as a woman in STEM, and engineer at the University of Edinburgh, School of Engineering.

What inspired you to get into engineering, and is it the same thing that inspires you today?

I am naturally a very inquisitive person and, since I was little, I think that I was meant to pursue science and engineering. My mother told me that from an early age my favourite question was “Why for?!” which I would ask my parents over and over for an explanation as to why things were doing what they do, and this is still the case today!

Tell us a bit about your career and studies in engineering up to this point; what you enjoyed and what have you found most challenging?

There have been many highlights in my career so far! I get to meet some incredible people, including the former CTO of NASA, Mason Peck, as well as renowned engineers and scientists. I also get to work on some amazing projects involving extremely interesting and innovative research for organisations like the UK Space Agency.

I have been able to publish papers in a wide variety of journals including Plasma Physics, Controlled Fusion, Royal Society of Chemistry Advances, Geoderma (global journal of soil science) and Plasma Sources Science and Technology.

There are of course challenges that come with working in engineering, which can involve long working weeks and conducting difficult research. But for someone like me (and you!), these challenges can be overcome with the high level of interest, reward and satisfaction that comes with knowing that you are contributing to the advancement of engineering and science in the world!

Can you explain your research in a nutshell?

In the Space Mechatronics Laboratory at the University of Strathclyde, I worked on various projects including an intelligent land mobile robotic system platform for agricultural and space exploration, as well as a Standard Interface for Robotic Manipulation (SIROM) for use in future space missions. In this position I worked across the disciplines of engineering, physics and chemistry.

Within the Soft Systems Group I am working on a project called Connect-R. The project’s aim is to develop an industrial-scale self-building modular robotic solution, which provides access to worksites in hazardous environments such as nuclear power stations.

What do you enjoy most about research and academia at the school of engineering?

As an engineering physicist, it is really satisfying for me to be able to work in the School Engineering and still being able to use the knowledge that I have acquired throughout my physics education and work experience background.

I love the knowledge diversity of people that I work with. Although I work with people who are all in the same group as me, everyone has an individual knowledge skill set. I work in the Soft Robotics group, which is made up of individuals that have qualifications and knowledge in chemistry, biology, physics and several types of engineering such as mechanical, robotic, marine and electronic as well as computational programming.

How would you like your career to develop in the future?

I had not necessarily thought about my career ‘path’ when I was much younger and just starting my undergraduate degree, but I did know what I wanted to do, so I went out to get it. I had to constantly learn how to get to the next ‘level’ and reach those goals and dreams that I aspired to.

Like I mentioned previously, I have always asked ‘why for?!’ I have a strong interest in science and engineering. I particularly have an interest in space science engineering, and I have always known this since I was very young (apart from one brief period, where I wanted to become a nuclear physicist, which was always met with an awkward silence at school careers day). At University, I studied for a BSc (Hons) Physics and then I went on to do a postgraduate masters in Radio Frequency Engineering and finally a PhD in Physics, where I investigated space plasma and radiation. This allowed me to develop the skills required to work in the exciting world of science and engineering.

I have several friends that I went to University with that went into different career avenues, the financial sector for example. However, for me, I have always wanted to stay in the science and engineering world. Therefore, when I left University I searched for jobs where I could work in positions that were conducting space related research.

After working as a space systems design engineer in the Mechatronics laboratory, I got the position in the Soft Systems Group. The skill set I have now, compared to when I finished my PhD, has equipped me to work on projects and in fields that I desire. I am very much enjoying my current job, and I am excited to see where this takes me and all the other interesting projects that I will be working on!

My career thus far has changed through several different disciplines and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. It has been very challenging sometimes, and there have been learning curves which, when working across disciplines like this, are very steep. However, I am always in favour of challenging and broadening my mind and so I would like to continue to grow and learn as I have done.

A goal of mine, and has been since being a child, is to work at NASA. I would like to obtain a position there, such as a postdoctoral position. It is incredible to me that I am now in a situation where this is not just a dream anymore, but a real and attainable goal. I hadn’t necessarily thought that when I was doing my Bachelors in Physics that I would one day be working in robotics, but I am very glad that my career has taken this detour and I am happy to enjoy a similar journey in the future!

What attracted you to a career in research and academia?

I like working in research and academia because every single day is different. Each day, I am doing something new or learning something new. For my personality type, I love to continuously learn and to acquire new skills and knowledge.

I don’t like to do the same thing all the time, I love new experiences and academia allows me to meet people and go to places that I ordinarily may not have ventured to. I am able to travel to conferences around the world and network with people in the same field, or sometimes in different, related fields. For the project I am working on at the moment, I am able to travel and work with industry partner companies, and I like being able to work in an area between academia and industry.

By definition, research is investigation and study in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions. Hence, research in science and engineering gives me the ability to investigate and explain how things work, including the natural processes of the universe. It allows me to answer “why does this happen?” and “how does this happen?”.

For the most part, research in one field will require input from several other disciplines. Since finishing my PhD many years ago and working in academia I have learnt so much more about topics outside my primary field of physics. I have also been able to supervise university students from the undergraduate level through to PhD level. I love being able to teach others STEM subjects in an aid to further their knowledge and take on opportunities to do what they love, just like I am able to do.

I didn’t always find school or university easy and sometimes (most of the time) I had to work especially hard to get the results and qualifications that I needed to be where I am now. It is a wonderful feeling for me to be able to teach and mentor students. I love being able to help and interact with someone who is struggling to grasp a particular concept, or being a part of another’s journey to achieve the academic merit that they desire.

What career advice would you give to young girls and woman in STEM wishing to pursue a career in research and academia?

My advice would be to get into it! It doesn’t matter who you are, if this is what you want to do, and you have a passion for science and engineering then get involved! Research what field you want to get into and find out which qualifications you need then work hard, be inquisitive and go for the moon shot!

It is also good to surround yourself with like-minded, ambitious people and take advice from those who have gone before you and established themselves in similar fields. Chances are they will have worked out some of the “kinks” that may come along and have great advice about how to get around them.

Remember, no two people’s paths to achieving their ambitions are quite the same, so don’t compare yourself to others. My path to where I am now was a winding one, but that didn’t stop me from getting where I am now. So, keep your head down, eyes up and remember; failure is not an option!

Dr Karen Donaldson
Dr Karen Donaldson