Danielle George, Professor of Radio Frequency Engineering, University of Manchester

Interview: Danielle George, Professor of Radio Frequency Engineering, University of Manchester

Image credit: Nick Smith

Professor of Radio Frequency Engineering at the University of Manchester’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Danielle George has a high profile in promoting the public understanding of science in the media. She’s also founder of the world’s first recycled robot orchestra.

Professor Danielle George is a rising star, bringing engineering to a wider audience. Quite apart from her leadership and academic roles at the University of Manchester, she’s an advocate for the public understanding of engineering through outreach and engagement. She has delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, founded a robot orchestra, been awarded an MBE and is a television presenter. She’s on a mission to get the British public to see engineering as something interesting, creative and fun.

George has recently been filming for a BBC1 television programme called ‘Nation of Inventors’, which she co-presents. She is extremely excited that one of the inventors to come under the programme’s scrutiny is British aeronautical engineer and motorbike racer Beatrice ‘Tilly’ Shilling. Although George points out that she doesn’t really have any female engineering role models, she keenly admits that Shilling “was this most amazing lady from the Second World War, who helped to fix a potentially fatal flaw in Spitfire aircraft by creating an anti-cut-out device – still known as ‘Miss Tilly’s diaphragm’ or the ‘Tilly orifice’ – and in doing so ensured the manoeuvrability of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine equipped Spitfires and Hurricanes during Battle of Britain dogfights”.

When not presenting on TV, the 41-year-old British scientist is Professor of Radio Frequency Engineering at the Faculty of Science and Engineering at University of Manchester, as well as holding the post of vice dean of teaching and learning. As an academic and researcher she is heavily involved with RF engineering. With a research background in radio astronomy instrumentation, her projects involve contributing to the $1bn next-generation Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, more sensitive by a factor of 50 than anything that has gone before it. Her research interests have expanded into aerospace communications and wireless sensor networks, working with industrial collaborators such as National Instruments, Rolls-Royce and Syngenta.

George wants to get more young people into engineering, but is quick to point out that she doesn’t have a gender bias: she just wants people in general to become engineers. “I don’t talk primarily to girls, because that means you are only reaching half of the target population.” What’s really important to George, especially when trying to interest children, is to talk to boys too, so that it becomes established in boys’ minds “that it is normal to have women in engineering”. She is also careful not to evangelise about “how brilliant engineering is. I think what I’m trying to say is ‘don’t discount it’, and to try to wash away some of the myths that people seem to have about engineering.”

Myth one is that an engineer is an unqualified person, who “maybe is in a boiler suit, or will come to fix your satellite dish or washing machine. Because in the UK the word engineer isn’t protected. If you are a plumber – and there’s nothing wrong with that – you can call yourself an engineer. In Germany, you can’t do that.” Myth two is that “girls don’t do engineering, or they only do certain types of engineering, such as bio-medical, rather than electronics. That’s a big one.” Myth three is that “engineering is boring and isn’t creative. This is one of my biggest bugbears. You have to be a creative person in order to do this, and there are the huge challenges we are facing in terms of getting people interested in confronting problems we will face in the future. It will be engineers that solve them.”

 Last, it may not be a myth, but certainly is a pressure affecting graduates entering the job market, is starting salary. George thinks that engineering skills and aptitudes such as numeracy and analytical thinking are lost to the financial markets. “You see a lot of that at university. In some ways you can understand why students might do that because the debt they are coming out of universities with is very high. Yet what you find is that lots of students who go into the banking sector later have a change of heart. I hear about students who come back into engineering, because that is their passion.”

These myths aren’t abstract challenges drawn from the world of academic musings. We need engineers, says George, because numbers are down. Looking to the short-term future, which she suggests takes us up to 2025, “if you look at the spread of people we need to fill these shortages, they aren’t all university jobs. There is the vocational side as well, in the form of apprenticeships. We need to fill all these places. I don’t think it solves the problem to just get more people to go to university to do engineering. There’s nothing wrong in not going into an engineering career if your passion lies elsewhere,” says George. “All I’m saying is that it is an option. Don’t shut it down. I’m not saying that we should all become engineers. It would be a very boring world if we were all engineers. I’m just busting the myths.” 

George thinks that one way to dismantle these myths is for engineers to go out into the wider community to communicate what it is that they actually do. Whether this falls under the category of ‘role model’ is moot.

“I’ve never been a huge fan of the idea of needing female engineering role models. You need to take the subject away from it and see who inspires you generally.” In George’s case, inspiration came from the enquiring minds of her teachers and her mother in particular, “building your confidence. It’s not just about talking to people who are visible as engineers. Yet the more I look into the past now, the more I can see that there were some inspirational women in the field, who were timeless. Beatrice Shilling, for example,” she says, referring back to the Spitfire engineer. She also mentions Heddy Lamarr, the Austrian Hollywood movie actor, who went on to develop spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology, which is still in use today.

Big questions from the beginning

Coming from a non-engineering family and a generation where women simply didn’t go into engineering did not inhibit George’s desire to become a scientist and engineer. “I was always a ‘why’ child. Yet that’s not so different from many children. But what I found was that I was always asking ‘how?’, too. That’s the big thing: the ‘why’ is the scientist speaking, the ‘how’ is the engineer talking. I didn’t just want to know why the sky is blue: I wanted to know how it was blue. I was always taking things apart as a kid, and my parents said this was OK, but it was the ‘putting it back together’ that I needed to get right. It’s not as if this was the only thing I was interested in. I love music and I played the violin and the viola for an orchestra in Newcastle. When I was younger I had a chemistry set and wanted to be a chemist. That didn’t really last. Same thing with the microscope, but there was the telescope, and that really stuck, watching lunar eclipses and so on.”

Standard maths, physics and chemistry A-levels paved the way for George to read astrophysics at the University of Liverpool, following which she did a stint at Jodrell Bank, part of the University of Manchester, where she gained her master’s degree in radio astronomy. By this point she realised that she “definitely didn’t want to be a number-cruncher sitting at a computer looking at simulations and downloading data. I wanted to build things and do things.”

This led to her asking engineers at Jodrell to supervise her dissertation: “And this is the big thing. They weren’t academics and you can’t really do that.” Yet eventually the problem was solved and George ended up with a more practical approach to her PhD, which in turn led to her applying for a job as a junior engineer. “That’s how I got into engineering.”

By engineering, she means working on the most sophisticated telescopes ever built, where her contribution is in the field of low-noise amplifier design.

“One of the largest projects currently in radio astronomy is the SKA. It’s a huge international collaboration, and I’ve been lucky to work in some of the low-frequency aspects. These signals are very weak and very far away and so you need to amplify them. But what you don’t want to do is amplify anything else. These are very precise and not the sort of thing you can buy commercially off the shelf. More recently I’ve been working on the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) project that goes into sub-THz level, where again I’ve been working on the amplifier designs for specific frequencies.”

When not designing bespoke amplifiers for the world’s largest telescopes, George can be found in the lecture halls of the University of Manchester, or teaching electronic circuit design to first years. “This is really important, and I love teaching. I love my research, but the teaching gives me a different buzz. Electronic circuit design is a very practical subject.” The reason it is important is not just because it is fundamental to passing engineering degrees, but also because undergraduates will need this grounding in their careers. “It’s difficult to say to them ‘believe me, you will need this’, and so you have to make it applicable in some way. I’m lucky my research can provide examples for undergraduates in how you can apply circuit design.”

Put engineering on the map

As well as a research scientist and teacher, George is a public engineer, spreading the word in the media. In 2014, she became only the sixth woman in 189 years to give the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, which tackled the theme of how to hack your home and included a live conversation with Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on the International Space Station. In 2016 she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to engineering through public engagement, while founding the Robot Orchestra, for which she received the Royal Academy of Engineering Rooke Award for public promotion of engineering.

“The Robot Orchestra came about when Manchester was the European City of Science in 2016.” However, going back a year to 2015, George had been asked to join a committee “looking at the public engagement side of things. We knew that we wanted to get the public involved and we wanted to put engineering on the map. These were the two big things I wanted to do.”

George had some experience of robot orchestras while involved with the Christmas Lectures, “and that was good because it got musicians involved with engineering”. The 2016 iteration of the orchestra was a natural development consisting of ‘electronic brains’ that created music by playing real instruments including violins, glockenspiels and xylophones, “as well as redundant technology like floppy disk drives and old desk fans, which can make their own sounds. This was the first Citizen Science project of its kind, reusing discarded machines and technology.” The orchestra played the ‘Imperial March’ from ‘Star Wars’, the ‘Eye of the Tiger’, and “other amazing things”, which in turn led to the involvement of Siemens, in the form of chief executive Jurgen Maier offering funding support, which, coupled with further funding from the EPSRC, meant that the orchestra was viable. “The children of Manchester could now get involved with the project.”

Although it was fun, there was “a huge serious research side to the Robot Orchestra. I also wanted to show children in particular just how creative engineering could be. Again, this was in order to persuade children not to dismiss engineering. This is the critical point. Engineering is interesting, but unfortunately there are people who don’t think that it is. It’s a tremendous amount of fun, where you are allowed to fail.”

With that, George gets onto her metaphorical soapbox. “This is the problem with the education system. It makes children go through exams and tests and then tells them they are failing. That is awful. If you are going to tell young people that failing is bad, then where is the next generation of innovators going to come from?

“Every single person who has innovated has failed at some point. If children are afraid to fail, they will never innovate. Look at Edison and Einstein. Look at anyone who’s ever achieved anything. You have to fail. It’s crucial to innovation. It’s how you push boundaries. It’s how you get out of your comfort zone. Just push what you think you can do. And when it doesn’t work, work out how to get it to work.”

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