Derek McKay-Bukowski

Favourite Thing: Field work! Actually being out on site and building something or measuring something. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your design or project become a reality. (Oh, and being outdoors in stunning locations helps too!)




M.Sc in Astrophysics, 1995-1997. B.Sc (Hons) in Physics and Pure Mathematics,1988-1991.

Work History:

Jodrell Bank (Cheshire), ASTRON (Netherlands), Telescope Technologies Ltd. (Merseyside), CSIRO (Australia), European Southern Observatory (Germany), University College London (UK), EISCAT Scientific Association (Norway/Sweden), Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (Oxfordshire), Chilbolton Observatory (Hampshire), Sodankylä Geophysical Observatory (Finland)


Sodankylä Geophysical Observatory (Finland) and Science & Technology Facilities Council (UK)

Current Job:

Radio telescope project manager

Me and my work

I build radio telescopes which are used explore our atmosphere, the solar system and deep space.

In the old days, astronomers would design and build their own telescope. These days, telescopes are so big and complicated, that you need whole teams of people to design them, build them and then make sure they work correctly… and that’s before you even start looking at the sky with it!

My job is to build radio telescopes and get them working. myimage1I need to be able to understand the science, so I know what the telescope is supposed to do when it’s finished. But I also need to understand the engineering so I know how the telescope is supposed to work and how it should be put together. I work on one project at a time, and each one is different and special in its own way.

My current project is building a radio telescope in Finland. This telescope is called KAIRA. Unlike the dish in the photograph, this new telescope will be made of huge flat panels. It will be used not only for astronomy, but also to study our own atmosphere, including things like the aurorae (Northern Lights). Because it is being built in the Arctic, there is only a couple of months in summer where it is warm enough to do the build work… so life is very busy for me at the moment!

You can follow this project on Twitter (@KairaProject) or via the daily ‘blog (

myimage4 Apart from getting these telescopes, whether dishes, panels or aerials, I also have to get them running properly. This means testing them, working out if they are measuring the radio wave correctly and then teaching other scientists how to use the equipment so they can make their own observations.

My Typical Day

Working at the radio telescope site; planning, building and testing each stage of the construction.

There is actually no such thing as a ‘typical day’ — every one is different, and that’s part of the fun!

Often it means waking up early, checking e-mail and the plan for the day. I’d then need to get out to the construction site, where the new radio telescope is being constructed. (That usually means that I am staying somewhere nearby!)

myimage3 On site, I need to make sure the team understands what they are supposed to do. So not only do I need to understand everything, but I have to be able to explain that clearly to others too. We then all get on with the building work — and that includes me too! Some days might be earthworks, while for others it’s installing cables. Some weeks will be just constructing antennas, and others might be surveying work. I think that because no two days are the same, it keeps the work interesting. It also means I’m often learning new things too!

myimage5 Once the work is done, you have to check it. For any scientific instrument, this is very important. You have to test that all the parts are right and that the finished section of radio telescope works properly. You need a good eye for detail here! Also, other members of the team are checking my work, to make sure that I myself haven’t made any mistakes.

At the end of the day, there is more planning for the next day. Often I need to write up a report. And then post the day’s photos on the ‘blog.

What I'd do with the money

Travel to schools and given presentations on astronomy and space-science.

Although school students can watch television or read books or web sites, there is nothing quite like meeting a real person who actually does this sort of work.

myimage2 So, my plan is for travelling to as many schools as possible to give students a chance to hear the stories, learn about the thrill of science and ask direct questions. A bit like ‘I’m a scientist get me out of here’, but live in the classroom or school hall, rather than on the other side of the computer screen.

However travelling is expensive. And getting to schools the length and bredth of the country (along with equipment, computers, displays and other bits-n-peices) is expensive. Thus, I plan to use the money to get me to those schools, whether in the city or country, north or south…

… and also to  ‘get me out of there’  at the end of it!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Organised, hard-working, dedicated

Who is your favourite singer or band?

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Stood in the middle of a vast snowfield, under the inky-black Arctic sky, watching the shimmering aurorae play over the stars.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Live in a lighthouse, own a real submarine, be able to speak fluent Polish.

What did you want to be after you left school?

Work with radio telescopes. This was inspired by a photograph in a newpaper of a radio-telescope control room. 20 years later I was working in that EXACT same control room. (Mission accomplished!)

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Occasionally. I figure this is okay. If you are never in trouble, it means you never experimented or pushed the limits. However, if you a repeatedly in trouble, it means you didn’t learn from your experiences and mistakes.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Led the LOFAR-UK radio telescope construction project.

Tell us a joke.

It is estimated that 3.71 X 10^8 “first-star-tonight” wishes have been completely wasted on Venus.