Maria Grazia Labate
So Maria Grazia, you’re working on the SKA’s low-frequency telescope – what does your job entail?
I am the SKA-Low Telescope Engineer, and as such I am the responsible, on the technical side, for the design and delivery of the overall low-frequency (SKA-Low) telescope. As you know, we are talking about one of the biggest challenges in radio astronomy, so my job consists in making sure that we deliver to our scientific community a unique instrument at low-frequency. This entails cross-checking that everything is in place, that we include in our design all the capabilities and flexibility needed to do huge discoveries, and that we do not forget anything that may impact the success of this amazing project. All of this staying within budget, time and other constraints. Not easy!
For this reason, every day I work closely with my colleagues, both on the engineering and management side, and beyond, to look after the different aspects of the design and delivery of the telescope. This includes analysing the design from different perspectives, taking into account the different possibilities and trade-offs, anticipating what could go wrong and how to prevent this, managing the technical aspects at system-level and identify the next steps forward.
What did you do before this?
After receiving a master’s degree in Telecommunication Engineering, I immediately started working asSystem Integration & Technology Analyst in telecommunication companies, and in the meantime I kept looking for a path towards my dream. I got a PhD degree in Electronic Engineering and worked for big aerospace and defence companies, both in R&D divisions and centres of excellence, as an antenna and phased-array designer, both for satellites and radars. In 2013, I joined the SKA Office as the System Engineer for the Low-Frequency Aperture Array. In short, that meant making sure that the part of the telescope that captures the signals from the sky and does the first processing, was meeting the specifications needed to do great science. Since 2017 I have been the SKA-Low Telescope Engineer, and you know the rest!
“In the SKA, collaboration between engineers and scientists is essential – everything you do has a clear impact on what you can discover.”
Engineering has many possible routes as a career – what do you find so special about applying your skills to the SKA?
What I find amazing is that as engineer I can contribute to the discovery of the Universe and reveal its mysteries. When I decided to study engineering, I thought that this meant abandoning my dream to work in science and astronomy. I knew that engineering was crucial to scientific and astronomical discoveries, but what SKA showed me is how strong and amazing this interaction can be.
In the SKA we work in an environment where collaboration between engineers and scientists is essential, where everything you do and you work for has a clear impact on what you can discover, and you know this. It is amazing how when you work to improve the performance of the system or sub-systems or when you work to solve some issues, you immediately think: I do this so we can discover more about the Universe. Working for SKA is an unique opportunity, it gives you the privilege to collaborate with amazing people, projects and institutions from all over the world, to understand better the interaction among different disciplines involving different skills, to be part of something special, and, as you can see, to learn a lot from it.
Was space always a source of fascination for you, when you were growing up in southern Italy?
As a little girl I was amazed by the sky and told myself that once I grew up I would discover what God had put up there, since it looked amazing. During nights spent with my friends on the beach or mountains just looking at the stars and planets, I’ve been surprised by how long you can stay still just looking at the sky, realising how this moment could change your feelings, your thoughts, and even the way you look at the world. It was fun and fascinating to think how humanity throughout time looked up to the sky and started wondering about something, seeing animals, mythological people, creatures, objects.
In addition to the sky, one of my passions was also to disassemble and reassemble the electronic devices I found in my house to understand how they worked. I have to admit that my mother was not always happy with this, especially when I was disassembling precious old clocks! I was two or three years old and I clearly remember that they were broken and I fixed them – but my mother remembers the opposite and she still complains sometimes!
So there were some early signs of engineering skills there! Did you ever think about being an astronomer instead?
Since the very beginning. I loved the sky, then I loved science, and I remember I was inspired by great female and male scientists talking on TV. So when I was a child I wanted to become an astronomer. I’ve always loved technology and science, trying to understand how things really worked. When the time came to apply for university, I was very confused since couldn’t choose between engineering and astrophysics. I was afraid that becoming an engineer would have somehow limited my chance to work in exploring the Universe, and that, on the contrary, choosing astrophysics would have kept me away from building concrete things. Now, in retrospect, I can say that there was not really this limitation, but at that time I didn’t know.
I remember being on a train journey from Rome to my city, Reggio Calabria, and being really afraid since it was just a few hours before the deadline for applying to the university, and I was feeling really lost since I didn’t know which was the right choice to make. I closed my eyes and asked God what I should do… and, amazingly enough, as soon as I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was a guy that I didn’t know, studying on the train. It turned out that guy had experienced my exact same dilemma, and he told me all the pros and cons and his experience, and five minutes later I knew the path I had to follow: engineering! At that time I didn’t know, I just trusted God’s answer, and now I can see as my passion for the Universe and for building things have been brought together.
And how did that lead you to the SKA?
At university I became passionate about electromagnetics, and during my first lecture of the antenna course the professor told us that antennas are useful to build lots of things, including the largest radio telescope ever constructed, the SKA…well, how amazing, that was the connection I was looking for: engineering and astronomy, “the LARGEST radio telescope”, I knew that was truly the job of my dreams! So, with this in mind, I continued studying, I took a master’s degree in Telecommunication and Engineering at the University of Reggio Calabria, a PhD in Electronic Engineering at the Second University of Naples and I worked in Rome, Milan, Naples and Stevenage before arriving at the SKA in 2013. During all those years and experiences, many things happened, many challenges, many brave/risky decisions, and many "signs" like the one on the train, and I have learned how all things work together for good when you don’t give up.
“To make engineering more accessible we have to be this ‘outstretched hand’ that reaches young people everywhere… showing them role models, pointing to them opportunities.”
Each year the SKA marks International Women in Engineering Day in June – how do you think we can make engineering more accessible to women and other under-represented groups?
We can do this by sharing our experience, what we have learned, what we see every day: the examples of amazing women and other people that we know and who show us that engineering does not belong to any particular category, but that engineering is for everyone who loves it. But to do so we need to reach people, especially the young ones, since not everyone has the opportunity, or is lucky enough, to know the possibilities that are in front of them. So, to make engineering more accessible we have to be this“outstretched hand”, that reaches young people everywhere, and help them by giving them guidance, showing them role models, pointing to them opportunities and planting into them a seed that, if they want, they can make it grow.
We can do this though initiatives in the context of our organisation, by supporting and participating in initiatives of others institutions, by promoting events, but also as part of our normal life: by sharing our experience as people who see in our daily jobs how important diversity is, including in the context of engineering. The more diversity there is, the more ideas there are, and the different perspectives and approaches contribute in resolving problems and achieving great success.
You’re known in the office for your enthusiasm and passion for the whole SKA project, and often take part in outreach events – is that an important part of the job for you?
It is an important part of my life. I feel very lucky since I was inspired and motivated to not give up on my dreams, but, on the other hand, I have also met people that tried to discourage me. So I feel called, and I think that all of us are, to help other people. Moreover, when you share your passion in outreach events, you get even more enthusiasm and energy from the people that come to listen. That’s such an experience! I do not see this “strictly” as part of my job, but I feel really glad that I work for an organisation and a project that encourages, promotes, and supports outreach events.
What do you love most about being part of Team SKA?
Definitely the diversity! We are a team made up of people from many different countries and cultures, with different backgrounds, accents, experiences, beliefs, religions, colours of skin, genders, ages, abilities, skills, having different roles and responsibilities, having different approaches but working together, with a common objective, sharing a common passion, respecting each other and learning from each other. You can see how all of this, also extending to people working and collaborating on the SKA project all over the globe, enriches everyone and makes this project even more special.
What’s the best thing about working in this sector, and on the SKA specifically?
The great thing about being an engineer is that you put your ideas down on paper and then build them. You get confidence in applying the different concepts you have studied to deal with reality and find new practical solutions when you need them. Engineering makes your life more fun, it makes you wonder how things really work, what there is behind them, and if you can build the same or even better.
Then working as an engineer for the SKA you can accept the challenge to build something never built before, to face new problems and find new solutions, to give your unique contribution in discoveries of the future.We will be able to prove what are currently only theories, and look for things that haven’t been seen since almost the beginning of the universe. No one can aim for more, it’s beautiful and really fascinating.
Maria Grazia’s outgoing personality and passion about the SKA make her a great speaker. In 2014, she gave this talk on the SKA at TEDx Manchester – in front of 800 university students!