‘Permanent careers for Irish researchers don’t exist outside public agencies’

29 May 2019

Dr Jenny Hanafin. Image: NUI Galway

Dr Jenny Hanafin of ICHEC at NUI Galway is helping to develop a satellite data archive for all of Ireland to tap into.

After studying marine science at NUI Galway, Dr Jenny Hanafin undertook a PhD in physical oceanography and meteorology at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

With experience as a satellite operations scientist for an atmospheric satellite mission, she has also worked for Met Éireann to assimilate satellite data into its operational weather forecasting model.

She is currently a computational scientist working at the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC) at NUI Galway.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

The first time I met a full-time oceanography researcher, I knew that was the career that I wanted. I had never realised before I met that postdoc that it was possible to spend your life working in research!

Mind you, that was before all of the amazing developments that have happened in the Irish research scene in the last 30 or so years, so research wasn’t a well-known career path at that time.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

At ICHEC, we are developing a national satellite data archive and my aim is to make that archive and those data easy to access and use for all Irish users, whether for research, public sector applications or commercial services.

Satellite data can provide huge benefits for anyone interested in the environment, but using it requires a level of expertise that not everyone has or has the resources to develop. So, as well as working on the data to make it easier to use and understand, we are developing IT systems to improve the speed of processing of these datasets, which are becoming really massive with the latest generation of satellites.

We are also developing expertise so that we can collaborate with potential users to help them understand how the data can help them in particular areas and how it could best be used.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Ireland is lagging behind the rest of Europe when it comes to exploiting the satellite data which is now available. This data is funded by the European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA). It is our taxes which support the current European Earth observation satellite constellation (Copernicus) and we should be making more use of it.

This constellation is unique in the world at the moment as other nations don’t have the resources or foresight to create the type of system which ESA has been developing. It is providing high-quality satellite data on the environment and will do so for decades into the future.

This will allow us to monitor and study our environment at a scale which was not possible before. Investment now in the expertise and systems required to exploit this data will save time and money in the future and will give us new insights into how our planet works.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

We have a number of commercial partners either already involved or interested in using the data for various purposes. The opportunities for commercial applications include developing new satellite sensors, new data acquisition and processing systems for satellite platforms.

Also, it could help lead to new processing systems for ground stations and data archives as well as new applications of the data to generate products and services.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

A serious issue facing Irish researchers at the moment is the fact that full-time, permanent career paths don’t exist outside the public agencies.

In other countries, there are research centres and institutes where people have permanent research positions. This allows them to focus more on developing programmes, getting results and generating output.

In Ireland, research is done on a project-by-project basis by postdocs and fellows on contracts, or by lecturers whose time is split between teaching and research. This will have to be addressed in order to have a coherent, sustainable and functioning research landscape in Ireland. This is necessary to address national needs and priorities, as developing and maintaining long-term research programmes is difficult in the current system.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I suppose the biggest misconception about satellite data is that it only consists of ‘photos’ or images of the Earth like we see on Google Earth, whereas there are a huge range of technologies flying on different platforms.

For example, we use radar to measure the height of the surface, which allows us to develop terrain maps and measure ocean waves; or microwave and infrared sensors to measure temperature, humidity of the surface and the atmosphere. These additional sensors give us opportunities to see the planet in very different ways.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Here at ICHEC, we are very interested in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning as applied to satellite data. The data is becoming so massive that it is very difficult to study it image by image as before, and new data analytics are becoming vital to assess the information available in the volume of data we receive.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.