In Humans of ASTRON we share stories about the people at ASTRON. This time we interview Dr. Ágnes Mika, project manager at ASTRON, about her work for the radio astronomy institute. She joined ASTRON in 2013.

Published by the editorial team, 22 September 2020

What was the happiest moment in your working life at ASTRON?

There are two periods that stand out. The first one was the final sprint towards delivering Apertif into operations. During this time, the project team was working very closely together. Not only were we sharing the same room, but our lives as well, for eight hours a day. I loved the vibe in the room: all those people striving to achieve the same goal, having lots of discussions, solving problems together, but also having a lot of fun. It was a very intense, sometimes tough, but also highly rewarding period. Afterwards, several people on the team told me that this was their happiest time at ASTRON – what more can a project manager wish for (besides the pride of having delivered a shiny new instrument into operations)?

The second period that stands out and which highlighted the "human" side of ASTRON, was when I was suffering from a serious illness followed by a long recovery. The amount of support I received from my colleagues was astonishing. I was deeply moved by it and it made a world of difference during those dark times.

Which person was the most important in your career?

There are too many to name them all. The ones who were at the root of it all are my mother and grandfather. They were instrumental in nurturing my natural curiosity and hunger for learning. I was fortunate to have met several outstanding and inspiring people during my education. In my working life two people stood out: my first boss, Dr. Akos Horvath, who taught me the intricacies of storm warning (I was working at the Hungarian Meteorological Service at the time) and programming.

The second one was my PhD supervisor, Dr. Christos Haldoupis. He was always very supportive and taught me to look deeper and ask the right questions when interpreting observations and thinking about the underlying phenomena.

Lately, the most important people have been my colleagues at ASTRON who are a continuous source of challenge, motivation and support.

What was your inspiration to choose this field of work?

Becoming a project manager was not so much a choice, but something I gradually rolled into. During my PhD I realised that focusing on the same topic for years on end does not make me happy. So I went on to work for a consultancy company. One day, my boss walked into my office and dumped a project proposal on my desk accompanied by the famous words: "Now you are managing this!" I had no idea what to do with it but slowly found my way. More projects followed and I kept on learning, mostly from my own mistakes. It's quite unbelievable to realise now that at the time I did not even know that the profession of "project manager" was an actual thing.

Ágnes Mika with colleagues Juergen Morawietz en Sjouke Kuindersma. (Copyright: ASTRON/Raymond van den Brink)

Slowly, I realised that I love the many facets belonging to managing a project, from working with a team to playing with plannings and budget sheets. After the first few years at ASTRON I made the concious decision of becoming a fulltime project manager. Later, I applied for the position of competence group leader for the COMPAS group (a team of systems engineering and project management professionals), and again, ASTRON found me up to the job. This role has added new dimensions to my work: now I am also responsible for professionalising ASTRON further in the aforementioned areas and for supporting the people in my group in their professional growth.

Why did you choose ASTRON?

When my work with my previous employer ended, my eye fell on an advertisement from ASTRON entitled "DOME-SKA liaison engineer". I immediately knew: this is the one! Lucky for me, ASTRON thought the same, so here I am! Being able to do project management in an astronomy institute, for me it was a dream come true: the perfect combination of my old dream of becoming an astronomer and my newly found love for project management.

What does your day look like?

Both of my roles at ASTRON (group leader and project manager) require a lot of communication. Thus a significant part of my day consists of talking to various people, which means that not one day is the same. One day I might be talking to a group member about how things are going with his or her projects and private life. The next day I have a discussion on improving our processes and tooling, thinking about strategy, and so on.

Next to these activities, I make sure to go for a run or take a nice stroll through the woods and fields surrounding ASTRON every day. The best ideas often come to me when I am out there, relaxing.


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