International Women’s Day #WomenonWednesdays: Michele Dougherty

This International Women’s Day I sat down with Michele Dougherty to talk about her journey, research, and experiences as a Woman in Physics. Thank you very very much for your time Michele and we wish you the best of luck as you move to the Institute of Physics!

As an introduction, what is your area of expertise within physics and what has been your journey to where you are now?

I am a planetary scientist. So what my team does is they build instruments, magnetometers, that fly o

n spacecraft and my focus in the last 20 years or so has been Saturn and its moons, and now it’s Jupiter and its moons; there’s an instrument on its way to Jupiter. And the way in which I got into this area was rather a roundabout way. I was actually trained as an applied mathematician. I was at an all girls school in South Africa and I didn’t do science and I was really fortunate, my dad worked at the local university and they were prepared to take a chance on me, so I did a BSc without having done science and the first year was really hard. I remember I’d go home every evening and my dad would go through the lecture notes with me. So it took me a while to feel that I’d come up to speed, but I got a PhD in applied maths and then I was in Germany for two years on a fellowship and then I came to imperial as a postdoc on a two year contract and I was asked if I wanted to put a magnetic field model together for Jupiter. I knew nothing about either. And I thought yeah, that sounded cool. So I said yes. And so that’s how I ended up doing what I do.

During your journey, what has been your experience as a woman in physics?

I don’t feel that I haven’t been able to do anything. Probably linked to the way I was brought up, even though I was brought up in South Africa, which in those days was quite a chauvinist society. I was always brought up to feel that I could do anything I wanted to do. So I think I’ve been fortunate and so I don’t think I’ve been impacted. I’ve always been very clear with people as to what my expectations are and if someone says something or does something I don’t like, I will tell them. So I don’t think I’ve been impacted, but you know I’ve been asked this question before and what I’ve also started to say is when we don’t ask each other that question, we will know that everything is on track. So I think we’re getting better. I think the scientific community in particular is getting better but there’s clearly some way to go. It’s partly the way I am, I think, that I will stand up to things I don’t like.

What have been your highlights from your time at Imperial?

Two of them scientific. I mean, we made a fantastic discovery on the Cassini mission to Saturn. We discovered the out-gassing of water vapour from one of the moons and then the mission that’s going to Jupiter called JUICE, having that chosen by the European Space Agency. I led the team that pulled that together and then being selected to build the instrument for JUICE. But also I think being head of department has been a very difficult six years. We went through COVID, we’re doing a department restructure, but I’m feeling really positive about where the department is at, so I think that’s probably one of the highlights as well.

What are you excited about for when you start getting results from JUICE?

You need so much patience to be involved in outer planetary missions. You know, from my perspective, we’re essentially halfway through JUICE. We first started thinking about it back in 2008. It was selected and built and launched, and then in another 15 years we’ll be getting our last bits of data and doing the science on them. So there are two different answers to your question. The first one is maybe what it is that we will be measuring. So what my instrument does is it measures the magnetic field and the most important measurement we want to make is around one of the moons called Ganymede. If you’ve got a conducting body that is in a magnetic field that’s changing, as Ganymede is in the magnetic field of Jupiter, because of the changing magnetic field, electrical currents will flow in that conducting body. Those electrical currents will generate a magnetic field, and that’s the hardest measurement that we need to make because by measuring the magnetic field generated by the induction, we can work out how deep the liquid water ocean is and what its salt content is, and potentially whether it’s a global ocean or not. But the other answer to your question is, the thing that excites me most is what we will discover that we don’t yet know. So on the Cassini mission to Saturn, we never expected to find a liquid water ocean on one of the moons and that was the discovery that was led by my team. So we have a plan and we have specific science goals, but for me the most exciting thing is what we’re going to find, that we don’t yet know.

Congratulations on being elected the next President of the Institute of Physics. Is there anything that you’re particularly looking forward to about your new role?

It’s quite a complicated route, so I’m president-elect for two years and then I become president for two years. So it’s clearly a very difficult job if you have to learn it for two years! The president at the moment is a man called Keith Burnett from Oxford. He’s on our chair of our External Advisory Board, so I know him well and he’s very similar to me: he has a very good sense of humour, so we’re working well together. But I think for me, the most important thing I want to ensure that we do is that people join the Institute of Physics Even if they’re not practising physicists. I want anyone who’s interested in physics to become a member of the Institute of Physics because the only way we can ensure that Physics and Chemistry and science is taught properly is to ensure that we interact with those people who might not be a physicist like I am or like you are. But yeah, I think open up The Institute of Physics to people other than practising physicists. I think it’s really important we do that for physics teachers in particular.

Looking back, what advice would you have for yourself?

Be brave and do things that you’re scared of doing. I think for me, I would never have ended up doing what I do in planetary science if I hadn’t said yes to getting involved in a mission to Jupiter. I knew nothing, but it sounded really exciting so I said yes and I’m really glad I did. So, I think that’s the most important thing and I should have done more of that: taken things on I wasn’t sure I could do, but you learn pretty quickly.