Article - Faye Giles

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This article is reproduced from the June/July 2010 issue of Diversity Careers magazine.

It’s NRAO for Out-of-This-World Research, Technology & Engineering


“This is a great place to work, an environment for learning, collaboration and knowledge-sharing,” says the Employment and Diversity Manager


The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) is one of the world’s premier research facilities for radio astronomy and the only U.S. radio-based national facility.

NRAO is part of the National Science Foundation, operated by Associated Universities, Inc under a collective agreement. It operates the powerful radio telescopes that study deep space above the Western Hemisphere.

Optical telescopes collect light, but radio telescopes like the NRAO’s collect photons and sound energy. International scientists come to the observatory to do research in astronomy and physics.

"We have a brilliant workforce,” says Faye Giles, employment and diversity manager. “This is a really great place to work. It’s collegial, an environment for learning, collaboration and knowledge-sharing. The dynamic work that takes place is amazing!”

NRAO operates a complementary suite of powerful telescopes in Green Bank, WV; the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank telescope is the world’s most sensitive single-dish radio telescope. There’s also the Very Large Array, a grouping of twenty-seven antennas near Socorro, NM, now being upgraded to modernize all its electronics. And the Very Long Baseline Array is a series of ten powerful radio telescopes ranging across the U.S. from the Virgin Islands to Hawaii.

Jobs associated with these marvelous instruments include systems administrators, systems and structures engineers and engineering analysis work. “Our people are involved in the design and execution of projects,” Giles says. They get to collaborate and interact productively with scientists and business-oriented users, and security clearances are not required.

MEs and EEs are also needed to handle analysis and design, as well as fabrication and testing of custom designs and integrated systems. “Some work in comfortable laboratories, but others are deployed in severe environments with high altitudes, in the mountains of northern Chile or working inside a telescope in the summer heat. There’s definitely a physical component to that job!” Giles says.

In particular demand are techies fluent in Linux and Mac OSx, C++, XML, Python, shell scripting and enterprise communications. Both BS and MS grads are needed, and some jobs require three to five years of professional experience.

"We just finished our hiring process for new positions in IT,” Giles says, “but I know there will be vacancies in the future. People should look at our website.”

To recruit diverse candidates, NRAO attends career fairs including the Black Engineer of the Year STEM conference, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and the Women in Astronomy and Space conferences. The organization also works with SHPE and the Astronomical Society for Women, and actively recruits veterans and people with disabilities.

NRAO work includes co-ops, internships and research-experience undergrad programs. “We have a partnership with Howard University (Washington, DC) and have done some work with Norfolk State University (Norfolk, VA),” Giles says.

She adds that NRAO is developing diversity training, to be customized to each site; training for all employees will take place this year, and there will be diversity advocates available for people working in the observatory’s various locations.

Mentoring is informal, among team members, but NRAO has plans to start a formal mentoring program, as well as setting diversity goals and objectives in the performance evaluation process.

An interesting aspect of diversity is the range of generations now working for the organization. “New scientists coming in are interested in teamwork; the more seasoned scientists may be more accustomed to working independently,” Giles points out.

"It's not only generational,” she says. Competing priorities and tight deadlines can impact team dynamics. “We’re having focused discussions on inclusion, team dynamics and general awareness of a changing workforce. It is critical to the success of any organization to create a work environment that fosters respect and tolerance for a broad range of perspectives among team members.”

NRAO offers telecommuting, flex time, alternate work schedules and flexible benefits. Childcare facilities are available at two sites and an employee assistance program is available to both employees and their families. There are also subsidies for gym and wellness programs.

Under NRAO’s tuition assistance program, tuition costs are reimbursed for work-related degrees. “Tuition advances are available to employees who need assistance paying the upfront cost,” Giles says. “We also offer fellowships and post-doc and undergraduate training opportunities. Many of our former students are hired into fulltime salaried positions.”

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