Q&A – Dr Maria Ribera Vicent

Materials World magazine
1 Mar 2017

Kathryn Allen speaks to Dr Maria Ribera Vicent about her career to date, being awarded a Daphne Jackson Fellowship and the effects of a career break on progression and networking.

Tell me about your background and career to date.

I grew up in Spain but I got my degree in aerospace engineering at Saint Louis University in Missouri, USA. I went on to study a masters and PhD at the University of Maryland, USA, specialising in rotorcraft, applied mechanics and aerodynamics. After that, my husband and I decided to move to the UK – he had got a job in London and I found a job at the University of Southampton. I worked there for five years, during which time I had my first child. I then worked part-time in conjunction with Rolls-Royce in engine optimisation. After my second child was born, I decided to take a break for three years. After that, I managed to get a Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship to work at the University of Surrey on a very exciting project. 

What inspired you to study aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering? 

As a child I was always fascinated with space, rockets and aeroplanes – anything that flew. I was determined from very early on that this was what I wanted to study, but I didn’t have the option to study it in my hometown. Where I grew up in Spain, people go to university in their local cities – they don’t move away unless they want to study a subject not offered in their city. A lot of people tried to convince me to do other things, like telecom engineering or industrial engineering, but I didn’t find it as fascinating. I found out about the possibility of going to the USA – Saint Louis University, USA, had a Madrid campus and you could study there for a couple of years and then move to the States.  

What does your day-to-day work involve? 

My work is very computer based, so most days involve coding and debugging. When the code produces interesting results there's a lot of graphing and analysing of results. We work together with Airbus Defence and Space on my current project, so I have frequent discussions with them and, of course, in the life of a researcher writing up simulation results is a big part of the working day. 

Your current research project is entitled 'Satellite FEM validation with advanced optimisation and virtual vibration testing' – what is the aim of this research and what stage have you reached?

We started with simple structures to test our ideas, and they've worked so we can actually reduce the differences between the models and the experimental results by using optimisation, which was our aim. Now we're trying this with a much bigger spacecraft that can take several hours to compute every optimisation run, which involves lots of simulations, takes much longer. The aim is to build a model to include approximation techniques or surrogate models. These can be used instead of the actual function evaluation, which takes hours. It’s much faster to build one of those, but it's an approximation. However, you can update and improve it, and it speeds up the process. We're now working on building this model with the approximation so we can apply what we’ve already developed with simpler structures to much larger structures. 

What are the applications of this research? 

This sort of study covers bridges and all sorts of civil applications as well as aircraft – any structure that you need to model. Finite element modelling is a computer approach, but it’s an approximation and there are always levels of uncertainty. If you compare it to actual experimental data and it doesn’t match, you can look into the model and see where you applied the approximations or assumptions and see if you can improve your model by comparing the two. The idea is to use optimisation to speed up the process and to look at how to best change the parameters to get accurate results. This has been used already to validate finite element models in other fields, but we're applying it to big structures to see what would be the best approach for companies like Airbus. Spacecraft cannot be tested on the rocket obviously, so right now we're comparing shaker bed tests. The idea is that in the future we will simulate not just the spacecraft but the spacecraft coupled to the rocket to see how it will behave before its actually launched. 

What has been your biggest career achievement? 

I feel really proud to have been awarded a Daphne Jackson Fellowship – it has been a success story for me. It's very hard once you've been on a career break to get back in to a very competitive industry, particularly on a part-time and flexible working basis. I feel particularly pleased to have been given the opportunity to work on a project that is slightly different to my previous field. I think that they saw my skills were transferable. It was very rewarding. 

How has being awarded a Daphne Jackson Fellowship impacted your career? 

When you have a permanent job and you take a career break for maternity leave, you can go back and ask for shorter hours and they may accommodate you, like they did for me at the University of Southampton, but when you're not employed and you want a new part-time job to fit around raising a family, it's difficult. The Daphne Jackson Fellowship has given me the ability to undertake a challenging research project in a supportive environment on a part-time contract and flexible working basis. Another big plus is the personalised and tailored re-training programme – the Trust encourages returners to update their professional skills. If you work in a lab, for instance, it's important to learn about new equipment or, in general, new software – anything you may have missed. The Fellowship allows you to refresh ideas and concepts and retrain where needed. It has definitely had an impact on my career, my self-esteem and my confidence. 

Around 90% of Daphne Jackson Fellows in 2015 were female – do you think women face greater difficulties in returning to work after a career break?  

I think the difficulties attached to returning to work after a career break applies to both men and women. The problem is, women tend to have career breaks more often than men. I think it’s unfortunate that employers sometimes view someone in a less than favourable light for having had a career break, but hopefully this is changing and employers will be able to see that the career break was not wasted time and that people can continue to develop skills in many different ways. 

Do you feel you missed important career developments or opportunities while on your career break?

I suppose people can take breaks in different ways – you can disconnect from everything or you can stay in touch. I made sure I kept up to date with what was going on the aerospace engineering sector so I remained informed. Of course, there were opportunities I couldn’t pursue – for example, positions I could have applied for had I been working at the time, but I couldn’t as I was looking after my newborn baby. That’s life, I suppose. 

Methods of networking have developed with technology over the last 20 years – what are your thoughts on this?  

When I was younger I thought networking was talking to strangers at conferences and during coffee breaks, and I found that quite scary and difficult to do at times. Nowadays, with social media it’s a lot easier to make contact, introduce yourself and ask them about their work. I think it’s getting easier because you can know more about the individuals you’re talking to and when you meet them in person you’ve already done the groundwork. 

What advice would you give to engineering students or people just starting out in the field? 

If you're just starting out, go along to a conference or event with a more experienced supervisor or colleague. I find it helps to break the ice and they may know who are valuable people for you to talk to. Don’t be afraid to ask for an introduction. Recently, when I was on my career break I went to a conference but I didn’t know a lot of people so I asked some of my old colleagues to introduce me and I made some really useful contacts. Asking a question at the end of a seminar gives you an ice-breaker to approach the speaker later and have a conversation. 

Dr Maria Ribera Vicent was awarded a Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship in 2015, sponsored by the University of Surrey and Royal Academy of Engineering, UK. Daphne Jackson Fellowships enable talented individuals to return to scientific research work after a career break of two or more years taken for family, caring or health reasons. The charity offers part-time retraining fellowships in universities and research institutes across the UK.

To find out more about current Fellowship opportunities visit www.daphnejackson.org