Every year, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) employs around 45 sandwich students, based at three sites across the UK. The Sandwich Student Scheme offers undergraduates the chance to take a year out from their respective degree courses in order to use and develop the skills they’ve acquired at university within a working environment.
As a placement student working in Science Communication, I am aware of the breadth of opportunities available to students employed by STFC, one of Europe’s largest multidisciplinary research organisations. By virtue of the nature of my job, I get to meet a wide range of scientists and engineers from different backgrounds and learn about the exciting, cutting-edge research they are undertaking within their respective departments. It is through this contact that I have been able to discover the valuable contribution made by fellow students to working life at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. In this feature, I sit down with several members of the 2017/18 CLF sandwich student team to discuss their roles within the organisation and share what they hope to gain by the end of their placement.
“So - first things first - what do you do in your job at the CLF?”
Scott Addis (Physics, University of Bath): I work in the operations room of the Vulcan laser. When I am not pursuing smaller projects - which mostly involve optics or programming - I help operate the laser. This involves making sure all the safety procedures are carried out, setting up the laser to provide the user with what they want and ensuring the laser will not be damaged in use.
Kamal Brahim (Physics, Loughborough University): I’ve completed various tasks since I started at CALTA three weeks ago. More recently, I aligned part of the DiPOLE Laser system, was shown how to operate the cryostat and analysed data corresponding to the energy of the front end in the system.
Huw Owen (Physics with Nuclear Astrophysics, University of Surrey): Part of my job is to operate the Vulcan laser, which involves utilising control systems to modify the pulses that are sent to the target area. The rest of my time will be spent on project work which is yet to be finalised. However, it’s likely I’ll be working on a test compressor, which compresses the laser pulse in time to increase its intensity. I drink a lot of tea too!
Alex Mcstea (Natural Sciences, University of Bath): I help users who come in to use one of the super resolution microscopes at Octopus - Elyra - to capture images and acquire data. This involves explaining techniques, setting up the microscope, optimising images and working with users to overcome sampling problems. I am also hoping to contribute towards a research project that is being carried out by staff here, using new software to analyse some of the data collected by Elyra.
Joe Wragg (Chemical Physics, University of Edinburgh): My job involves setting up diagnostics, aligning lasers, and being of general assistance to the users in the different areas of Vulcan, playing my part in helping with the experiments taking place. I also run my own projects alongside day-to- day work.
Sam Duncan (Materials Engineering, Loughborough University): I build laser diagnostics like Joe, design new systems/components for use in the target area of Vulcan and help users set up and run experiments.
Paulina Majchrzak (Chemical Physics, University of Edinburgh): I complete a mixture of tasks within the Artemis group including helping with optical set-ups for the experiments, assisting the users, logging in data and ordering equipment for the lab. From time to time I’ll also complete some engineering jobs (e.g. helping with building the chambers). My personal project will most likely revolve around developing and evaluating the new beam line for the facility.
“What is the most exciting thing about your job?”
Alex: I’d say being able to meet and work with such a wide range of researchers, all with different interests and scientific backgrounds, on a daily basis is what is really inspiring. I am trusted to use super resolution microscopes and have the freedom to use them whenever I like which is a big bonus!
Kamal: Mostly I enjoy the variety in my job. This means I could either be sitting at my desk learning more about the system, attending exciting meetings to discuss future ideas or I could be in the lab doing something practical. I was even a tour guide for the facility and am able to attend lectures on plasma physics as part of my job.
Joe: For me, it’s being given the opportunity to work on unique science that hasn’t been done before. Using very expensive, huge bits of laser equipment is also very exciting!
“What made you decide to study a STEM subject at school/degree level?”
Huw: I wasn’t very good at other subjects, perhaps apart from English literature. Physics, on the other hand, has always been a subject I’ve enjoyed so it seemed like a natural progression for me to choose to study it at university.
Paulina: As elevated as it might sound a desire to understand how the world around us works at a fundamental level. Initially, I was mostly interested in chemistry - as the central science with links to most of the other disciplines - now I am leaning more and more towards physics.
“What motivated you to apply for a placement at CLF/STFC?”
Scott: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after university so I decided to complete a year in industry in order to test out some different fields. I wanted to do something I would enjoy but that would also help me to get a job after university which made me decide upon a research placement. With that in mind, STFC is one of the best places you can go.
Alex: As part of my Natural Sciences degree I study Biology and Physics jointly so I really wanted to find a placement where I could apply my knowledge in both disciplines. The OCTOPUS department at STFC fits perfectly with my Biophysics career aspirations since it combines the physics of high resolution imaging techniques with cutting edge biological research. As soon as I heard about the placement I thought it sounded perfect for me so I jumped right at it!
Sam: Materials engineering opens many doors in research and industry, so I wanted to experience what research was like to help inform my career choice after my degree. We also had a school visit to the Diamond Light Source in sixth form, which I really enjoyed.
"What do you hope to gain from your placement at CLF?”
Alex: By the end of the year I aspire to have helped with data acquisition for a wide range of research projects and acquired a good set of laboratory skills; ranging from the biological preparation of samples to the running of high power super resolution microscopes or other imaging techniques. I hope to have contributed to one of the research papers being prepared here enough to warrant my name being published and I also hope to have made positive connections with members of staff, which may be useful in the future.
Joe: I hope that this placement year will provide me with invaluable experience working in a laboratory; knowledge from the standard of physics practised here and of course, responsibility with regards to using hazardous equipment.
Huw: My goal with regards to my placement is to gain knowledge and experience about research physics which I hope will be beneficial for completing my degree, whilst increasing my general understanding and broadening my horizons. I would like to say that I’ve been a valuable asset to the team and contributed something to the Vulcan laser itself.
“Finally - looking towards the future - do you have any specifc career aspirations?”
Kamal: Not exactly - but I want to be able to do something I love whilst benefitting others and getting paid to do it.
Alex: I hope to eventually have a biophysics research project of my own and to publish some of my own work.
Paulina: I see myself pursuing a PhD in some area on the interface of physics and chemistry (photonics is one idea, but there are too many inspiring things around to decide just yet!). Then I’m aiming to continue working in a research institute.
We look forward to welcoming all of our 2017/18 placement students to the CLF team and wish them every success during their year working here.
Further information about the variety of opportunities that STFC offers undergraduate students can be found by following this link.
To learn more about the innovating research undertaken at the CLF, please visit CLF News