Margaux Lopez ’11 is a mechanical engineer at SLAC National Lab in Menlo Park, California, where she is working on astronomy’s biggest digital camera. This camera is destined for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, an observatory under construction just outside of La Serena, Chile that will produce an unprecedented amount of astronomical data. (She is seen here in a selfie taken with the telescope in the background at the upper level.) Margaux works on the assembly of delicate camera components as well as preparing the facility in Chile for the arrival of the camera in 2021. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of Technology as well as a master’s degree from San Jose State University, both in mechanical engineering. In anticipation of her keynote talk at our 2019 Women’s Network Weekend in November, we sat down with Margaux to learn more about her work on the LSST and her path from St. Andrew's to Chile.
Could you tell me a little bit about your job and this particular project that you're working on and what it entails?
I work for the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California [SLAC stands for Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, which was the original name of the lab]. It’s a lab that’s run by Stanford, and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to do a lot of different types of research and development projects. The project I work on is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST. In a giant clean room at SLAC, we are physically assembling a car-sized camera that will eventually be mounted on a telescope that is currently under construction in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in Chile.
I started my career at SLAC in October 2015, working on the integration and test team for the LSST camera. As you can imagine, this camera is very complicated and there are many different sub-assemblies, large and small parts that need to be precisely integrated together. There are teams at SLAC building the shutter as well as a metal cylinder called the cryostat that holds all the sensors; there’s a team on Long Island in New York building all the sensor assemblies; there’s a team in France building our filter changer mechanism for a set of fancy colored filters. All of that hardware eventually gets delivered to SLAC to be assembled into the camera and then verified by the integration and test team. Turns out these things don’t always work the first time around, especially when combining multiple pieces of hardware from different teams into one large assembly, so the “test” part of integration and test is key.
I did that for three years, and then I transitioned to the LSST commissioning team, which is like integration and test for the entire telescope. On a broad scale, the LSST project has four main subsystems: the camera team, the telescope team, the data management team, and the education and public outreach team. The commissioning team is responsible for bringing those teams together in a harmonious way. So, my current job is to make sure that the camera we’re building at SLAC will function properly in the observatory with the telescope; that all of the utilities and mechanical connections and software controls are going to work as designed—or, more accurately, as revised once we realized that the original design was flawed; that we have all of the tools necessary to work on the camera and the telescope available on a remote mountaintop in Chile; that we have proper installation and maintenance procedures in place; and those sorts of things.
Do you have a typical day-to-day schedule, or is every day different? What does the average day look like for you?
It depends a lot on the phase of the project. I spent a lot of time my first two years in the SLAC clean room turning wrenches and building test fixtures in anticipation of the arrival of sensors from the team on Long Island, so that was pretty fun. Nowadays, there is no such thing as a “typical” schedule for me. Sometimes I am in Chile at the observatory site turning wrenches, sometimes I am at SLAC ordering and inventory-ing thousands of dollars of tools and materials to send to Chile, sometimes I design assembly or support fixtures in a CAD [Computer-Aided Design] program and then make fabrication drawings, sometimes I am in meetings trying to make sure all of the interfaces are going to work, and sometimes I play soccer or volleyball during lunch. I'm currently responsible for the shipping plan to get this giant camera plus other delicate pieces of hardware from SLAC to Chile safely, so that’s mildly terrifying. I'm also working on a test refrigeration system because ours is super-complicated and we want to make sure we can tune it properly at altitude. So, it's pretty varied, but the answer is my days contain lots of various engineering-related things… as you might have been able to guess from my job title.
In related news, I'm actually going to relocate my whole life from California to Chile in January. I’ve been there several times in the last year for two to four weeks at a time to work on various aspects of the summit facility and also check out the local climbing scene. The camera won't get to the summit for another year-ish, at the beginning of 2021, but there is a ton of prep work that needs to be done ahead of time and it’ll be easier to do that if I’m based in Chile for the next year or two. So learning Spanish is also on my daily to-do list.
How did you become interested in engineering?
What a great question. I grew up with an older brother (Pierce Lopez ’06), six years older than me and pretty much my idol when we weren’t busy fighting over computer time. He's my only sibling, and he was always really interested in science and technology and building things, so that definitely rubbed off on me. I played with all the same toys that he did, like K'NEX and LEGOs, and watched him build a desktop computer from scratch his junior year at St. Andrew’s. Also, my dad was an engineer before I was born and then became a stay-at-home dad for most of my childhood, so I always had a bunch of encouragement from him to dive into science and engineering and logic puzzles and strategy games.
I also really wanted to be an astronaut when I was little; I've always been completely fascinated by space. And then in eighth grade, I did this research project where we had to choose three careers and research them, and my three choices were an astronaut, math teacher, and soccer coach. That’s pretty much me in a nutshell. Through that exercise, I found out that most astronauts don't actually get to go to space, and when they do, it’s a totally annoying process. So I was like, "Maybe I'll just help them get there." That's when I started to seriously think about engineering.
At St. Andrew’s, I took a really fun computer programming class with Mr. Myers. We got to play with LEGO robots, which was supremely exciting after reading a million pages of Shakespeare for homework. In the class, there was a lot of engineering involved because we had to build the robots but also program them to be efficient. That was probably my first view into what engineers actually do. I also loved all the computer modeling in VPython that I did in Mr. Hammond’s AS Physics class my senior year. Although, thanks to St. Andrew's, I think I've taken more humanities classes and written more papers than all of my engineering colleagues combined.
And what's your favorite part about what you do, or the most rewarding part?
LSST is a very global project, and it's been rewarding to work with people of vastly different backgrounds. There are local Chileans that I work closely with when I’m at the observatory. Part of the telescope structure itself was built in northern Spain, and I got to travel there and meet all the people involved in that particular part. Also, SLAC itself is a very multinational lab, so I live and work with people from various cultures and countries, like my Canadian boss and my Dutch volleyball teammate. Of course, the main draw of the project for me is that space and telescopes and astronomy in general are all really cool and exciting. But on top of that, getting to work with crazy brilliant people from all over the world has been a lot of fun.
You graduated from St. Andrew’s in 2011. What was your St. Andrew's experience like?
In a word: Awesome. Living with friends and faculty for four years, you develop certain bonds that persist even if you haven’t seen each other in a while. I also really valued the independence that we learned at St. Andrew's—as students we were entrusted to do all the things we needed to do and then we had the freedom to enjoy the independence that we were given. As long as you get all your stuff done, you can kind of do what you want. And I did.
When I wasn’t busy writing English papers, which somehow always sucked up way more hours than planned, I spent a lot of time swimming in the pond, running around the cornfields, hanging out on the Front Lawn, and generally taking advantage of the outdoors. Through that culture, St. Andrew's helped to instill in me a love of nature that persists to this day—I spend most of my weekends in the mountains, skiing or hiking or climbing or some combination thereof.
What are you most looking forward to about coming back to campus this fall and taking part in this year’s Women's Network weekend?
I mean, selfishly, I get to see all my friends, so that's going to be awesome. I also love the St. Andrew's community and the general vibe of the place, and I am excited to come back and experience that again, even if it’s just for a weekend.
You can watch Margaux in her element at SLAC in this YouTube video.
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