Optics engineering, simulation technologies and ‘the Einstein effect’

12 Apr 2023

Image: Erin Elliott

Erin Elliott, principal R&D engineer at Ansys, spoke to SiliconRepublic.com about her impressive career path and her belief that anyone can be a scientist as long as they have ‘curiosity, persistence and a willingness to be wrong’.

A scientist flâneur, Erin Elliott describes her career path as “a bit of a random walk”.

As a child, she was interested in everything but was “not quite sure which path to pursue”. Thanks to generous scholarships, she studied physics and astronomy as an undergraduate, where she was inspired by her professors. Not even a failed experiment with a small radio telescope on the roof of the physics building could discourage her interest.

As a postgraduate, she studied optics at the University of Arizona, where they were building giant ground-based telescopes. This was how she got involved in working on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). She was part of the team that built the software to align the primary mirror segments so that they could act as a single mirror.

“I think I learned something new every hour during my decade on JWST,” Elliott said.

Elliott was part of the team that created the software to align the 18 segments of the primary mirror. “They had to be nearly perfectly aligned so that they operated as a single large mirror,” she explains. “We had to test the alignment for many different deployment scenarios, and in each case, make sure that we could reach the final, aligned state.”

“We simulated these different scenarios, but we also built a testbed version of JWST so that we could try out the alignment process on real hardware.”

‘Science isn’t magic; it’s a job like any other job, and you can learn to do it and make real contributions’

The next step

Elliott became increasingly interested in the potential capabilities of simulation technologies and software development.

“At some point I realised that building things was useful, but that I was really interested in the physics, math and simulations parts of the project,” Elliott explains her path to principal R&D engineer at Ansys.

“I want to build all the software tools that would have helped us out on JWST, and I went to Ansys Zemax to work on those tools.”

Elliott works on the Zemax OpticStudio optical engineering/raytracing software which is used to design optical systems. “We’ve recently added a tool called STAR that allows us to add the effects of stress and temperature changes to the optical system and evaluate the results.”

‘Simulate as you fly’

When asked about the role of simulation technology in developing space technologies, Elliott explains how NASA processes have changed since JWST.

“Before JWST, NASA had a ‘test as you fly’ ethos. For smaller systems, it’s a valid way to go; as much as possible, you want the testing on the ground to mimic the real flight conditions for the system.”

However, for a system as large as JWST, it wasn’t possible to test as a whole.

“We could cool down pieces of it using helium-cooled chambers, but we could never cool or test the whole system. This meant that simulations were critical in proving that JWST would perform on-orbit,” Elliott explains.

A new process called ‘simulate as you fly’ was developed whereby tests that were to be run on the ground were modelled, tests were conducted to confirm the models, then the models were used “to predict the on-orbit behaviour of the telescope”.

‘The Einstein effect’

Surprisingly, for someone working in such a complex and esoteric field, Elliott thinks one of the biggest challenges in science is ‘the Einstein effect’.

“For some reason, our society has a tendency to think that one has to be a genius to participate in science. I call it ‘the Einstein effect’ and it’s just not true.”

Elliott worked with a “great, knowledgeable team” during an undergraduate internship who “demystified the process of science for”. As she puts it, the team “weren’t geniuses”.

“They didn’t know how to solve the problem and their job was to guess and check and try to figure it out.” This helped her to realise that science was something she could do.

“I had the curiosity, persistence, and creativity to do this kind of work.”

Elliott has found career fulfilment at Ansys but it took a while to get here. “I knew I was in the right place for me because every day here feels like a playground of interesting things to work on.”

“I haven’t felt that about all of my jobs, and I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that it’s okay to work at things that aren’t a perfect fit, for a while. All of that experience was needed, in order to prepare to find and fall in love with my work here.”

A key message from Elliot is that “science isn’t magic; it’s a job like any other job, and you can learn to do it and make real contributions. All it takes is curiosity and persistence, and a willingness to be wrong!”

What’s in the stars?

As for the future of space innovation, Elliott is “pretty excited” about some of the proposals for what comes after JWST.

“JWST can be thought of as a robot that assembled itself on its way out to its orbital location. We can use what we’ve learned to create larger structures, such as giant star shields that fly separately from their telescopes, or free-flying telescopes that work together as interferometers for resolutions that we’ve never achieved before.”

For her part, Elliott is excited to build the software tools to make these developments possible.

“We might be able to achieve virtual reality simulations that let us try out every aspect of a device and the testing needed to build the device, before we build anything at all.”

For this star-gazing scientific stroller, “it’s a great time to be working in software”.

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic