Why an aerospace engineer and economist created a mini climate opera

2 Dec 2020

Sinéad O'Sullivan, research fellow at MIT. Image: Sinéad O'Sullivan

Sinéad O’Sullivan may be a busy researcher with many strings to her bow, yet she found time to write a mini opera on climate disinformation.

From researching the economics of space and spaceflight missions to Mars, to writing up a mini-opera about climate disinformation, aerospace engineer and economist Sinéad O’Sullivan of MIT has one of the most interesting science careers around.

You may have already come across her name a number of times on Siliconrepublic.com’s lists of Ireland’s best and brightest, from sci-tech leaders who have found success in the US to phenomenal women in engineering. Now, the Armagh native is set to appear virtually at this year’s Ireland Edge event.

While she is currently based at MIT researching the geopolitics of AI, her first love was the world around her and exploration of what goes beyond this planet.

“Growing up, I was fascinated by places like Antarctica, winter in North Dakota, dinosaurs, sea creatures and space,” O’Sullivan told Siliconrepublic.com.

“We know so little about our world and, growing up in Armagh, I wanted to see more. After having the opportunity to go to space camp at NASA Mission Control when I was 17 and being able to live and work with astronauts on projects, I decided I wanted to focus on space exploration.”

Landing the dream job

Soon after, having applied to study both aerospace engineering and astrophysics, she opted for the former as she loved the idea of building and making things, in addition to the fact that engineering involved quite a lot of teamwork.

“At the time I was 18 and didn’t have a clue what engineering really was, or what I would be learning or doing,” she admitted. “But it sounded fun. I liked aircraft, rockets and spaceships, and being able to understand and build them seemed really cool!”

O’Sullivan had an unlikely start to her career working in finance with Morgan Stanley in New York City, and it took some soul searching to figure out how to make a career doing what she really loved. Eventually, she got her “dream job” at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Working at the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory, she worked on projects ranging from air and submarine autonomous robotics for the US Air Force and Navy, to creating algorithms to detect mine-laying patterns by enemy naval forces at the bottom of the ocean using rovers.

Through her time there, O’Sullivan was able to return to NASA, but this time as an engineer helping to design human spaceflight missions to Mars. She said that her role was to model so-called ‘complex systems’, such as figuring out what type of propellant a space mission might use, how many astronauts do they need and what should they collect if they reach Mars?

‘You name it, I’ve had to deal with it’

“You name it, I’ve had to deal with it through human spaceflight design,” O’Sullivan said.

“When you look at the number of missions we can make using these combinations, there are hundreds of millions of possible missions designs to choose from, and we need just one! My job was to create mathematical models to understand which mission design would be the ‘best’ from the millions, whilst working with time, budget and government constraints.”

Despite being a self-described lifelong fan of space exploration, she realised during her time at NASA that she could apply what she has learned to solve problems here on Earth. Taking her newfound knowledge in modelling complex systems, O’Sullivan is now trying to model the complexity of democracy, technology and regulation as part of the MIT AI Policy for the World project.

With regulations being considered in the EU to make tech giants more accountable for the AI they create – and the enormous power they wield in the world through the control of data – O’Sullivan sees the fusing of geopolitics and AI as a fascinating case study.

“Geopolitics used to be defined by nations, geography and the fight for resources like food, water and energy,” she said.

“Now, we are increasingly seeing that tech platforms are more powerful than countries, and they bring with them their own resources like data and computational power. Understanding the dynamics between nations and platforms will be key in the next decade of technological growth.”

Opera ambitions

As if she didn’t have enough research work on her plate, O’Sullivan has also applied chaos theory to try and better understand why some people, organisations or nations are more creative or innovative than others.

Through this she has worked with top record producers to understand what music tops the charts, as well as venture capitalists and start-ups to see how and why some experience high growth and others don’t.

In the process, she ended up creating her own record label, founding a start-up and, to top it all off, making her own music. One of her most recent creations was a mini-opera presented at TEDxStormont, which touches on the massive problem of climate disinformation in the world.

Talking about the process, O’Sullivan said: “I met the fabulous operatic soprano Síobhra Quinlan at the same time that I was exploring contemporary opera.

“I wanted to experience the process of making something new – and she very kindly jumped in and helped me to bring together an incredibly talented and fun group of people.”

Sinéad O’Sullivan will be speaking at Ireland’s Edge digital festival, part of the Other Voices event series, on 8 December.

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic