Douglas Bock has been involved with building big things for the past few decades with bigger things still to come.
Bringing a supersized project to life is not just about engineering and construction. It is about creating an organisation of people that can achieve something big together.
“I’m an engineer at heart, always determined to build things: whether it is physical infrastructure, or systems and processes; it is about making connections and networks,” Douglas explained.
The early years: building opportunities
Degrees in electrical engineering and science came with internships that had Douglas climbing poles and constructing underground electricity substations, as well as studies like optical astronomy.
He was a volunteer Local Controller in Marrickville’s State Emergency Service unit in Sydney. The area was prone to storm damage and the experience allowed him to cultivate his management skills.
Bringing these management and engineering skills together for infrastructure projects seemed like an exciting career direction. So, from early on in his studies, Douglas’ career goal was to be the director of our Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF). The network of Australian radio astronomy observatories, which includes our Parkes radio telescope, Murriyang, is used by astronomers all over the world.
“CSIRO can do big things over longer timescales than other science organisations or universities. That’s what makes being here so interesting. We are making strategic science and engineering plans across 10-year timescales and more.
“The ATNF has a range of telescopes that researchers harness to do incredible science and showcase our world-leading engineering capabilities. And we’re going to keep doing that for decades to come.”
The way to keep this momentum, Douglas said, is to recognise that the technological systems can’t exist without the people.
To the northern hemisphere
Douglas earned his doctorate upgrading The University of Sydney’s Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (MOST). The task combined project management, engineering and astronomy.
“I could have gone into any of the sciences, they all fascinated me. I chose astronomy because it offered unique engineering challenges that I could really dive into,” he said.
“Then, as now, most professional astronomers have a stint working overseas. It was never a certainty that an opportunity would come up, so I planned to embed myself in projects in the US with no plans to return to Australia – I sold all my belongings!”
Douglas became the system scientist for the Allen Telescope Array. It was a key technology demonstrator for the future international SKA project. From there, he took up a position as the project manager for the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA), in California.
“This was a huge project, where we were redeveloping the hardware and software for the telescope, plus building power and control structures on a new site high in the mountains.”
“I worked closely with First Nations people, landholders, government agencies, biologists and tradespeople to enable the site and the science,” Douglas said.
Stepping into CSIRO
Though he loves the mountains in California – he has hiked across almost every peak around CARMA – Douglas kept an eye on leadership roles at the ATNF. The ATNF is run by our space and astronomy team.
His work at CARMA built his reputation as a manager of astronomy-sized projects. In 2010, Douglas came back to Australia to join the ATNF as a leader of operations. At the time, our ASKAP radio telescope was the new big project in radio astronomy.
“It is always exciting and interesting here, as the instruments we have and the scope of what we can achieve keeps expanding all the time. From ASKAP, we are now heading into the SKA era.”
In 2016, he took up the role of Director, Space and Astronomy which oversees the ATNF. A career goal achieved!
Today in his office, Douglas keeps a paper mâché Solar System made by his family suspended from the ceiling.
“What we do in CSIRO is not just about operating telescopes that look out into the Universe, but integrating technology development, science, and operations expertise to design, build and operate world-class facilities,” Douglas said.
“We also apply our technology and telescopes to other applications such as communicating with satellites and spacecraft, and contributing to the development of the Australian space industry.”
Looking to the future
The engineering expertise in the team supporting the ATNF has maintained our place as a pioneer in radio astronomy for more than 70 years.
Alongside this, Australia is a major partner in the international SKA project. This project involves building huge telescopes in Australia and South Africa. Douglas represents Australia on the Council of the SKA Observatory, which features participants from over a dozen countries.
“Constructing the SKA is not just about getting the technical pieces together, it’s about building a new global organisation with talented and passionate individuals.”
“Asking the question, can these great projects be built? And what are the engineering and human connections we need to make them happen? That can be just as exciting as observing the most distant galaxies.”