Tell us a little bit about you:
I am a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde whose main research interests are space and artificial intelligence (AI). While most who get involved in aerospace once dreamed of being an astronaut, I never really intended to go to space, but still found it fascinating and wanted to learn more about it. On the other hand, AI is a much newer interest for me largely born from all the hype around it. I do not foresee AI creating a robot apocalypse or replacing all humans soon, but I am hopeful about its potential on much smaller scales. Marrying AI and space creates an excellent combination of buzzwords which can make anyone excited. Outside of research I love music and have had the privilege of being part of several excellent groups at university. As part of these groups, I mostly play trombone, but I can also play guitar and piano. Music was in fact my second choice of career path, but I am glad to have pursued a STEM career while still getting to enjoy playing music.
What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?
My research topic is intelligent control for aerospace, which looks at how methods from artificial intelligence can combine with control theory to create highly autonomous systems. This is particularly useful in space where environments are very uncertain. Now I am working on using a class of techniques called reinforcement learning, where a machine can solve a problem through interaction with its environment.
When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?
When I was younger, I really enjoyed taking things apart (read: breaking things) which got me interested in how things worked. Like most young people I was also obsessed with making things using Lego, KNEX, and Meccano, which got me wondering how other things are made. Later on in life, I became fascinated by planes and how they fly. Pursuing this knowledge led me to a STEM course at university and although I still do not know exactly how planes fly, I learnt plenty of other things.
Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?
My main inspiration to stick with STEM came simply from an interest in Maths and Physics. As well as getting good grades in these classes, I was fortunate to have teachers who showed a genuine interest in their subject. One physics teacher I remember always enjoyed going off on tangents talking about, for example, Isaac Newton being a genius as well as completely mad and recounting some of the weird things he did. This also made the subject more enjoyable which kept me hooked on it throughout high school. In addition, I remember science featuring in the news when I was younger, most notably the discovery of the mass of the Higgs boson. Such events were really interesting to me and helped keep me excited by STEM.
What challenges do you think STEM disciplines face with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and what should a supportive, inclusive STEM community look like?
One of the challenges I see in STEM and more widely is giving people the space and encouragement to share their own stories or struggles. As one example, people will often be afraid to speak up about mental health problems which tends to make them worse. This should change. A supportive STEM community listens and responds to the needs of its members. An inclusive STEM community looks like the world in which it is situated – diverse and brilliant.
In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?
One of my proudest moments as a STEM researcher was being given the opportunity to participate in the Frontier Development Lab – an intensive research program looking at AI solutions to problems in the space industry. This had me working alongside many talented individuals on an interesting and challenging topic. My other proudest moment was reaching the global final of the IMechE Speak Out for Engineering competition. I enjoy giving presentations related to my research and getting recognition for this was a great privilege.
Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?
My biggest challenge came in the later years of my undergraduate degree when my mental health deteriorated. I left this aspect of my health unattended while I was focussing on studying to the point where it needed urgent attention. Thankfully, I was able to seek help through the university and have since learned how to live and thrive with anxiety and depression. Worries about my performance as a researcher have certainly contributed to my feeling anxious and unmotivated, so it is very helpful to talk to others who feel similarly to know that you are not alone.
Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?
I mainly find support from the people around me: friends, family, and colleagues. We all share similar experiences and can offer reassurance and support where necessary. I am a firm believer in “healthy body, healthy mind” and so I find staying active, even when staying at home, is essential to keep me happy and motivated.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?
If you are interested in STEM, go for it! A career in STEM is not without challenges, but that is part of why it is so fulfilling. Stay curious and do not be afraid to ask lots of questions.
Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.
a) My most recent nickname is “Dilly”, which is derived from my last name. b) Many people have the same first and last name as me – I have met a few of them. c) I used to be nicknamed “C” because it is the speed of light, which is sciencey, and it is hard to shorten “Callum” to anything else.