Development & Alumni Relations Office 

MEET THE RESEARCHER – AEROSPACE ENGINEER AND LECTURER, DR DANI SOBANDr Dani Soban holder model aircraft, standing in a park with trees in background

08 March 2021

Dr Danielle – Dani – Soban is a Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering in the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Queen’s, where her research expertise includes aircraft design, design and analysis of complex systems, technology infusion, value engineering, and visual data analytics.

Northern Ireland is a long way – and worlds apart – from where she grew up in Simi Valley, a city of 125,842 people, in the southeast corner of Ventura County, just 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles in the US.

California dreaming

“I was born in California and raised in Simi Valley. I adore California – beaches, mountains, even the earthquakes and wildfires – and loved growing up there.

“When I was a child in the early 1970s, Rocketdyne – the former American rocket engine design and production company – used to test rocket engines, including for the Space Shuttle, at their facility in Santa Susana in the Simi Hills.

“So I grew up hearing the roar of rockets, windows in our house rattling, and if you went outside, you could see huge plumes of smoke coming from the hills where the testing was done. I think it contributed to my early love of space and aeronautics.”

A seminal moment in her life came when as a youngster she witnessed the first landing of the Space Shuttle Challenger, at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert in 1983.

“I went with a friend and her family in their campervan and we camped on the desert. It was an amazing experience. There were huge crowds, lots of people cheering. It was the first time I’d ever felt a sonic boom. Just a thrilling experience to watch this technological achievement.

“I knew then I wanted to make aerospace my career and be part of the engineering magic that makes things fly.”

While she remembers her high school and early university student days with real affection, there is one date – January 28, 1986 – that holds quite painful memories. It was the day when Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its 10th mission, killing all seven crew members aboard.

“I was in the middle of my studies at University the day the Challenger exploded. We were all stunned. Classes were cancelled, and we all got together and just cried,” she said.

Dani Soban earned a Bachelor of Science (BS) and a MS (Master of Science) in Aerospace Engineering from Cal Poly (California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo) in the late 1980s/early 1990s, during which time she had summer studentships at NASA Ames a major NASA research center at Moffett Federal Airfield in California's Silicon Valley. She was then recruited for a PhD studentship at Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology), and by 2001 had completed her doctorate in Aerospace Engineering.

“I stayed at Georgia Tech as a Research Engineer at the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory (ASDL) for the next 10 years, doing applied research in Aerospace Engineering, and working with companies such as NASA, the Office of Naval Research, Boeing, and Lockheed. It was around this time that I also started establishing professional contacts internationally, including with people at Queen’s.

“We were involved in developing cutting edge aircraft design and analysis methodologies, based on systems and complex systems theories, and doing contract work that solved immediate and real-world problems.

“I was so fortunate to be able to work on many different projects and with many different companies during my time at ASDL. And the work that we did made an immediate difference and advanced the state of the art of aerospace engineering.”

Open to change

Then it was time for change and despite not having any personal ties with Northern Ireland, she found herself on a plane for a new life in Belfast and an aerospace lectureship at Queen’s, where she had some research connections.

“It was a big shift for me professionally, and a little scary to be making such a move, but if there is one piece of career advice I could give to people, it’s be open to change and explore new opportunities.

“Moving with a young family to a new country where we didn’t know anyone for a big career change was hugely intimidating, but also rather exciting.

“We don’t have any local family or ties, and it took us some time to really feel integrated into the tight knit community here. Now we absolutely love it and have close friends that we consider family.”

Dr Soban is now a Senior Lecturer in the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the University's Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences. Today she focuses her research activities on diverse multi-disciplinary projects, such as using visual data analytics to help solve fuel poverty, developing advanced manufacturing techniques, and exploring the societal impacts of novel technologies.

“Moving to Northern Ireland was a terrific decision for us, and I’m so glad we took the chance. We’ve now been here 11 years. My partner moved here on faith that he could find a job, and although we were very apprehensive about him finding a position in aerospace engineering, it has all worked out.”

It may have taken a while for her to adapt to the cultural shock but being warmly welcomed into the Queen’s academic family helped her get over that.

“My colleagues at the University are very supportive and I felt like part of a community right from the start. Both the research and the teaching are challenging and interesting. I like that Queen’s really seems to care about its students and its staff, and is constantly changing and trying new things to make it the best it can be.

“I particularly like the changes in diversity I’ve seen over the 11 years I’ve been here. I’m also very proud that both my School and the University each hold a Silver Athena SWAN award, and are committed to gender equality.”

Dr Soban’s research areas include advanced aircraft design methodologies, systems analysis and design of complex systems, visual analytics and Big Data, decision analysis, value engineering, and energy and sustainability. With such a broad, some would say untraditional, range of topics she can explore different ideas and technologies, rather than focusing on becoming an expert in only one or two areas.

“Queen’s gives me the flexibility to do this, and the freedom to define my own research agenda while exploring new areas of interest that could make a difference to our world. This is so important especially in light of global challenges in climate, poverty, and sustainability.”

Impact of COVID-19

Like many involved in education – teachers, lecturers and researchers – COVID-19 has changed how Dr Soban does things over the last 12 months.  

“The biggest impact we’ve had is moving to online and flexible teaching. As an educator, teaching online is not as simple as delivering the same lectures as you would face-to-face but just in front of a camera. Significant thought needs to go in to how one's teaching style must change – how to engage the students, how to maintain or increase interaction, how to assess students fairly?

“I’ve been very proud of my colleagues, Queen’s, and the students themselves and how we’ve all responded to these difficult circumstances. There is really a sense of everyone is in it together, and we all acknowledge we are doing the best we can.

“One very positive benefit from all of this is that I think it will fundamentally change how we teach and deliver education going forward. It has opened the door to new and positive ways of doing things, and it’s given us the confidence that we can make positive changes.”

With a diverse skillset in decision-making, a wide range of expertise and a value-driven perspective, Dr Soban is doing what she always wanted to do and what she enjoys – bringing together things that are better for everyone, important to society, and otherwise useful. That probably best explains why she is an engineer.

For general enquiries about this story or to submit a graduate news item, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO), Queen’s University Belfast.

Photo credit: Main image courtesy of Ivan Ewart; headline image courtesy of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)









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