Fascinating flying machines: Meet Simone Weber

Simone Weber is seconded from Airbus Helicopters UK to do a PhD in the School of Aerospace, Transport, and Manufacturing at Cranfield University. Whilst doing her PhD she is also the Technology Integration Manager, responsible for combining the technical aspects within the research project BladeSense. This project aims to mount fibre optic sensors along the length of a blade to determine its ‘health’ and identify early on whether there are any changes to the way in which it is behaving. While the project partners are developing the instrumentation system, Simone is focusing on developing a mathematical framework that allows the definition of optimal spatial mapping for the used fibre-optic sensors. This is important to be able to detect rotor blade damage at an early stage.

Her soapbox talk will be: “Sherlock Holmes: who broke his helicopter?”

You can catch Simone on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June.


SS: How did you get to your current position?

SW: After graduating from University of Applied Sciences in Munich in 2012, I joined Airbus Helicopters UK (AH UK) as a Mechanical Design Engineer. Alongside developing solutions for customers, I also had the chance to work in the installation and maintenance department to gain some knowledge from an application point of view. This experience enabled me to look at design problems from a global picture to make processes and design changes smoother for all parties. Yet, after working in design for almost 10 years, I started to miss the academic side. I began to feel bored and I certainly needed a change and a new challenge (I am certainly not bored anymore!). During my time working with helicopters in Germany and in the UK I have always been interested in the main rotor system, which in my opinion is the most exciting part of these fascinating flying machines. Hence, I wanted to do my own research project in this area and I approached Cranfield University to find out whether they would be interested. Finding financial means turned out to be the most difficult part. However, after convincing AH UK to fund my PhD, I was then setting up the research project BladeSense with the help of Cranfield University to create this excellent opportunity not only for the company but also for me. This PhD allows me not only to refocus and strengthen my technical abilities but also to learn the necessary management skills to be able to lead a research project.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

SW: My grandfather has been a lifelong inspiration to me. He always encouraged me in finding simple solutions to any sort of complex problems, and I loved the creativity involved and the part of building and implementing it into reality. Still nowadays, he amazes me with the sort of solutions he comes up with and I still enjoy building all sorts of things with him!

My interest in aerospace started quite late. After moving away from the countryside to start my studies in automotive engineering (seemingly obvious after growing up in the region where BMWs are being built!) only then did I discover my fascination for aerospace engineering. It was triggered by something that was probably the reason for many of the first pioneers who built flying machines: the freedom of being able to fly wherever one’s heart desires.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

SW: I am very lucky to work on a project with a scope as big as BladeSense. It covers aspects ranging from structural model development, to aerodynamics, optimisation, all the way to experimental testing. I absolutely love the combination of theory and practice and to be able to work with such a great team on this project. Also, leading the project from a technological perspective gives me a great insight to what each project partner is developing. This enables me to learn even more!

The most wonderful part of my career path is that with being an engineer, learning how to work as a scientist, and understanding how research projects are managed it enables me to look at the bigger picture in order to make a change in society someday.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

SW: I think Soapbox Science is an excellent opportunity to tell young people about how exciting it can be working in science, and how important it is that each of us contributes in making a change to this world. I am also keen to share my experience of working in a male dominated sector and take any worry away from young women by explaining how significant their role is just by being and thinking as a woman. I am convinced that with a team of equal gender the best results can be produced. While looking forward to passing on my knowledge and experiences during my path of becoming an aerospace engineer, I am really curious about all the questions I will get asked. I am sure that this will help me look at my research problem at a completely different angle.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

SW: Excitement!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

SW: Science is very much driven by success. If we fail the business is not interested anymore. This is also very much reflected in publically available research papers which often only present successful findings. Rarely do we find papers about what lessons have been learnt. I think as a scientist or engineer failure should be allowed, because only by that we can learn and improve ourselves – and this knowledge should be shared.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

SW: Be passionate and active about what you do. I think those two are the key drivers for anyone doing a PhD. As a women, however, I think there is an additional degree of confidence, persistence, and strength required. Sometimes we fall, but it matters how to get back up again only to be stronger. One final, but important piece of advice: Keep on smiling and have fun because that is the key to getting great ideas!


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