“Be confident. Do not let engineering intimidate you. Find what you like and go for it. Be prepared to work hard and always, always keep learning.”
Dr Simona Aracri, Research Associate, Institute for Integrated Micro and Nano Systems
Dr Simona Aracri is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate (PDRA) in the School’s Institute for Integrated Micro and Nano Systems (IMNS) based at the Scottish Microelectronics Centre. Within IMNS, she belongs to the Soft Systems Group.
Simona grew up in Genoa, Italy, where she developed an early passion for languages. Motivated to find a challenge which would provide a ‘new insight into the world’ as well as more language practice, Simona enrolled in Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture at the University of Genoa which included an Erasmus year studying at the University of A Coruña in Ferrol, Spain. Next came a Masters in Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture at the University of Trieste, Italy, during which Simona moved to Texel in the Netherlands to write her thesis at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ).
It was during her time in the Netherlands that Simona’s interests crystallised around physical oceanography, which led to another move – this time to the UK, to study for her PhD at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton with sponsorship from the Italian National Research Council Institute of Marine Sciences. In early 2018 Simona moved to the University of Edinburgh where she holds a PDRA position in the Soft Systems Group and currently works on the award-winning £36M ORCA Hub programme. ORCA Hub is aimed at realising the offshore energy industry's vision for a completely autonomous offshore energy field.
What sparked your interest in engineering? Is it the same thing that inspires you today?
My understanding of engineering changed over time – and over several different countries! I decided to study naval architecture and marine engineering, because I found it challenging. I studied foreign languages in a female high school, so switching to engineering was quite a change to a brand new subject, brand new environment.
Engineering is still full of exciting challenges, but now it is a tool to translate new ideas into physical solutions. Today, engineering is the framework for my research. It provides the language to translate theoretical work into physical results. I think that through engineering, science becomes tangible and relatable to the world.
How would you explain your research in a nutshell?
My research has one constant: the ocean. Countless tools help us to understand the role of the ocean in the environmental equilibrium. This is particularly important today, in the era of climate change. Another important point for environmental protection and technological progress is automation.
At the moment, I work for a project called ORCA Hub. My research focusses on the application of new technologies for oceanographic and offshore industrial purposes. In general, the understanding of ocean processes and the interaction between the marine environment and offshore structures drive my research. I particularly enjoy using marine data and ocean time series to reveal temporal patterns in the behaviour of the seas.
What have been the highlights and challenges of your career in engineering so far?
During my PhD I spent more than six months on board oceanographic vessels. You could say that these six months, spread over roughly four years, three different seas, five ships and four countries, were a highlight!
Juggling different aspects of science has been, and still is, a fun challenge. Communicating with experts in different fields is also a challenge. Perhaps my favourite challenge is translating technology from the industrial to the scientific domain.
What do you enjoy the most about research and academia at the School of Engineering?
The School of Engineering is a hub for great minds. For aspiring scientists, it offers an open, dynamic and stimulating environment. I am always amazed when, while catching up with literature, I come across new discoveries, novel ideas that I like and the authors are actually based at the University of Edinburgh! I could head out of my office, across the road, and go ask these scientists questions, and learn about their research. The School of Engineering also offers different development paths and research freedom, which are key features to make its community thrive.
How would you like your career to develop in the future?
This is actually a very difficult question. We often meet people that have their entire career path crystal clear in their minds. I do not believe that this is true for everybody and that’s totally fine. For me the answer to this question is continuously evolving.
I would like to become a fully independent researcher. My aim is to blend the disciplines that I have been studying in the past and create a space where they can benefit from each other. More specifically, I would like to contribute to the marine observing system with innovative technology and gather precious data to better understand the physics of the ocean, the influence of the changing climate on it and vice versa.
What attracted you to a career in research and academia?
The first time that I thought about working in academia, I was at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research in Texel. It felt to me that everyone there was moved by a noble scope; sometimes it was pure curiosity, others had in mind a specific problem that they wanted to solve. For the first time I realised how human progress is actually a puzzle of many people and scientists working together, how every single person and piece of research really counts. I wanted to be part of it. I also liked the idea of being able to learn indefinitely, and to be free to endlessly feed my mind with new knowledge.
What career advice would you give to aspiring engineers, particularly young girls and women in STEM wishing to pursue a career in research and academia?
Science and engineering might be many things, but they are certainly not monotonous! Building a career in these fields requires a high level of autonomy, resilience, organisation, time management, and communication skills. So, I would say to young girls and women in STEM to protect their time and their curiosity. It may seem very easy to become busy doing so many unimportant things sometimes, but being busy with something that actually replenishes your scientific interests is not that trivial, it takes focus, time, determination and confidence. All these qualities can be very fluctuating, especially in academia. At least this is the advice that I give to myself.