The team working at SKA Global Headquarters represent 15 nationalities, creating a vibrant atmosphere that embodies the international nature of the project. Among them is a number of young professionals who started their careers at the SKA, beginning on student placements before graduating into full-time roles on the project.
Kesseven Mooneyan, known as J among the staff, is one such member of Team SKA who works with our in-house IT specialists to assist local colleagues, test and develop new tools, and keep this global project connected across continents and time zones. Originally from Mauritius, one of the SKA’s African partner countries, J studied abroad in Canada and the UK where he excelled academically, earning a first class engineering degree – the highest grade in the UK university system.
He’s now part of a dedicated group of support staff who play a vital role in the operation of the HQ. We caught up with J to hear more about his role and where he hopes the SKA will take him in his future career.
Tell me about what you do at the SKA – what does typical day involve?
I assist the staff with daily IT issues involving software and hardware troubleshooting, audio and video conferencing, resolution of communication and network issues, maintenance of the IT assets, server administration and maintenance. Over the past year I’ve been heavily involved setting up the new SKA HQ so that staff could move in and hit the ground running. It’s a pretty big building and every room needed to be connected.
That’s also meant being involved in running the events that we now hold in the new Council Chamber, as there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes technology support needed to keep those running smoothly. When you’re working in IT no two days are ever the same because you never know what kind of issue you’ll have to deal with next – sometimes that makes it frenetic but it’s rarely dull!
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be part of a team that is helping to find out more about what’s out there in the Universe.”
Growing up in Mauritius, were you always into technology?
I was always adept at technology and electronics. I would always try to break open my toys to see how they are working inside and try to build weird kits with the dynamos and lights and switches. And the major evolution of the IT world happened when I was around eight or nine years old, just at the time I started to be intrigued by it.
Did you have a fondness for astronomy back then too?
Very much, ever since I started studying physics and learning about the Solar System and the Universe, I’ve been fascinated by it. It’s always been a dream of mine to be part of a team that is helping to find out more about what’s out there in the Universe.
How did those early interests lead to you choosing to study engineering – and making the decision to study abroad?
At school the subjects that interested me most were maths, physics, and design & technology because I liked that challenge of figuring out how and why things worked. My dad, who is a maths teacher, always ensured I understood all the maths topics, from the basics to the most complex concepts, and made sure I managed to solve all the hardest questions on my own.
I decided to study electrical engineering and initially studied at University of Manitoba, in central Canada. That was an amazing experience but after a couple of years it hit home how long it would take for me to finish my course – between four and six years for a BSc in Electrical Engineering, so I decided to transfer over to a university in the UK, as I have my siblings here in Birmingham.
You then joined Team SKA at the HQ, initially on a placement – how did that come about?
Once I’d transferred my course, I needed an industrial placement to assist me financially and also to get some experience of the professional world in UK, and of the working ethics and standards as well. The SKA has regularly taken on IT interns to help undergraduates develop career skills in industry, and as I previously worked in IT support in Mauritius, those skills gave me an opportunity to get my foot in the door at the SKA as an IT intern.
What kind of assistance did you get from SKAO during your placement, to help you to settle in to the role?
I was a student in Manchester, and one of the things that really helped was the work shuttle bus which helped me to get back to the nearest mainline station at Wilmslow every day. The SKA tries to create a sense of community by organising social activities for staff, like archery or activity days, and we have annual summer/Christmas parties where families are welcome, so it helps you to settle in when you first start. I’m a sociable guy so that helped me feel part of the organisation and to make friends here.
“Working at the SKA makes you feel part of this broader scientific effort to learn more and push the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Why did you want to come back and be part of the SKA full time – was it the role itself, the project, or both that attracted you?
The workplace atmosphere, as in the people working on the project and its collaborative nature was quite interesting to me, especially because there are so many nationalities working under one roof – although so far I’m the only Mauritian!
I had really enjoyed my SKA placement, learned a lot and made some good friends so of course that was an incentive to return. I graduated just as the IT team was expanding here at the HQ so I was keen to come back and develop my career here. The project on its own is really challenging on every front, from the financial size, to the aims of the project and the amount of science and engineering involved in making it a reality.
So as you’re an engineer by training, how would you like your career to progress within the SKA – what’s your ambition?
Yes I am an Electrical and Electronic Engineer. I was really happy to be back at SKA knowing the career prospects that I could possibly have if the opportunities arise. I’d love to be working as an engineer in the project, and then to further progress to the management level, while achieving a Charteredship – that’s my ultimate goal.
Being here at the HQ means I get to interact with many different teams, and we’ve got all kinds of engineers working here designing and developing the telescopes. That’s inspiring to me and gives me an opportunity to learn from them – there are always meetings and talks happening, and people are always open to questions and sharing their knowledge.
Do you think you will stay in the astronomy and space exploration sector, and consider working in places like ESO or ESA?
Most definitely – working at the SKA makes you feel part of this broader scientific effort to learn more and push the boundaries of what’s possible. There are so many organisations in this field, based all over the place, some that I had never even heard of until I worked here but all doing amazing things. It has opened my eyes to the different possibilities for my future career. Working with bright scientists and engineers in the SKA really feeds my enthusiasm, and makes me want to get involved in the science and astronomy fields even more.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps – is there any advice you wish you had been given?
Ask a lot of questions, go around the place and meet people. Everyone is friendly and likes to have a chat about what they work on. Never give up on trying to find a placement opportunity if that’s what you want. The competition is sometimes fierce, but there is always a place where you will fit well!
When you’re not helping keep the SKA’s IT systems running smoothly, what do you like to do to wind down?
I enjoy training at the gym, or cooking traditional dishes from Mauritius, going out with friends discovering new places. I’m also quite musical and enjoy playing musical instruments like guitar, djembe and harmonica, and lastly playing computer games.
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