Meet the 2023-24 CLF Placement Students
24 Oct 2023
- Megan Pritchard



As with every year, this summer has brought in a new cohort of undergrad students from various universities to spend a year working at the Central Laser Facility. I sat down with some of our newest recruits to find out what they were up to in their roles.




​Our sandwich/placement students spend 12 months working in departments across STFC as part of their programme of study at university. This provides an excellent opportunity to gain valuable work experience while watching the subjects they are studying come to life outside of the classroom. Our placement roles at the CLF see students get involved at the forefront of laser research, learning about engineering, optics, and the variety of sciences we explore through imaging and testing.

As this year’s Science Communication student at the CLF, I had the opportunity to discuss all things placement with some of my fellow cohort. Here’s what they had to say about joining the team.
Sam Gilmartin

Sam is completing a Masters in Physics with Photonics at the University of Southampton, and is currently on placement as a laser scientist in Vulcan. After spending some time learning the theory  and working with lasers during his degree, he chose to join the CLF to develop a range of expertise in practical work, coding, and simulations with lasers. He hopes this will help him gain a variety of skills to give him more flexibility when choosing a career.

​Sam in the Vulcan Control Room.

Sam spends his time split between different environments – some days have involved ‘shadowing’ another scientist in the labs, working to diagnose any problems with the laser or change the alignment. Other days, he has worked on code for simulations, or helped users of the laser by monitoring the control room and adjusting the beam alignment and energy. His most recent project was creating a timing synchronisation system to ensure two pulses of the laser hit the target exactly when the user wants them – either at the same time or a specific amount of time apart.

Sam said, “Since I’ve started at the CLF the team have created a really nice environment to work in. It’s relaxed, and yet challenging – in a good way! I particularly enjoy working in the clean room labs as wearing all the protective gear is a completely new experience.”
His work in the CLF has inspired him to potentially pursue a EngD in photonics and lasers after he graduates.
Sarah Berger

Sarah is on placement in Octopus while studying a Masters in Molecular and Cellular Biology with Biotechnology at the University of Glasgow. She said about her choice of placement, “I was drawn to the CLF by the high-quality facilities that allow for very precise research, and I am excited to be part of one large research project as opposed to the smaller, 3-week labs I do at university.”

Sarah in the Octopus labs.

Sarah’s project is looking into cancer research, specifically investigating why the body does not always detect the breaks in DNA strands that cause tumours. She uses the Octopus facility to induce DNA damage and assess these breakages, as well as exploring what proteins the body recruits to repair such damage. She spends the majority of her placement in the labs, which she finds very enjoyable and meditative!

Sarah said, “I enjoy the influence I’m able to have over the project. Seeing the cells do well and take shape is very satisfying!”
Following her undergraduate degree she intends to look into a PhD in cancer research, bacteriophage, or gene editing.

Sever Dragomir

Sev is studying a Masters in Electric and Electronic Engineering at the University of Nottingham, and his placement here at the CLF focuses on the Ultra facility. He hopes his role will give him a practical insight into his career plans, saying “I want a future in research, and this is a good way to understand if it’s the right fit for me. Doing a placement helps put things into the bigger picture.”

Sev in his office in the Ultra facility.

Sev is working on the electronics behind a microfluidics delivery system. The Ultra laser he uses takes snapshots through a small amount of fluid, however this fluid flows continuously, which means that data is lost when the laser isn’t firing. The system he is helping to develop will create chambers which stop the fluid in between shots to reduce this data loss, making it more efficient. His role involves assisting people in his team with simulating circuits and doing the necessary calculations, as well as conducting personal research into the project.

“My favourite part of the placement has been the freedom of the role and connecting with the team,” Sev said. He has especially appreciated having the opportunity to ask questions and discuss his work with accomplished laser scientists. He hopes to begin a job in research following his Masters and then pursue a PhD, possibly in optical trapping.
Zoe Athawes-Phelps

Zoe is based in the Gemini laser while pursuing her Masters in Physics and Astrophysics at the University of Bath. She chose to do a placement year after speaking to her classmates who had completed one, and felt it would be a great way to add to her learning experience. The applications of laser science in astrophysics and plasma science as well as the sense of community within the CLF team inspired her to join the department.

Zoe in the Gemini Control Room.

Zoe spends time both in the Gemini labs and completing her own research on the upcoming projects she will be involved in. At the moment she is assisting with a laser wakefield experiment, where a laser is shone at a target to turn it into a plasma, creating wakefields inside it. These wakefields can be used as a type of accelerator to transfer the energy to electrons. Her task is to probe the main laser beams with other lasers to get a closer view at what is going on inside the facility.

Compared to university, Zoe has found the fixed structure of the working day preferable as it has allowed her to relax and enjoy her free time more. She said, “I’ve loved playing a part in purposeful research and knowing that I’m making important contributions to the development of Gemini. I’ve never been involved with anything like this before and it has been so interesting to follow my scientific intuition rather than just following a lab script. It’s such a different experience.”

After her degree, Zoe believes she will seek out a role in industry while she decides if she would like to look into postgraduate study.

If you’re thinking of spending your placement year here at the CLF, you can find out more about the roles we offer and how to apply here: Industrial and Summer Placements - STFC Careers
Contact: Pritchard, Megan (STFC,RAL,CLF)