I’m guessing that Imperial College’s Blackett Laboratory is home to about 50 different labs, where the magic of scientific discovery is going on twenty-four hours a day. There is the gentle humming from the high powered computers on level 0, adjacent to the centre for cold matter where they’re measuring the shape of electrons with some lasers on an optics bench, next to where they’re confining plasma at the z-pinch. Upstairs in the clean room we’re dissolving carbon based polymers to print flexible electronic devices next to the main physics workshop where the amazing team of engineers and creators are building the weird and wonderful equipment we need. The madness never stops- we’ve got people using femtosecond laser pulses to generate x-ray pulses only attoseconds long, groups watching stars grow from the tenth floor in SW7 and people using super resolved microscopes for medical imaging. But do you know that it is happening around you?
On Wednesday 13th May, the WiP community hosted a mini open-day for the Imperial College Physics undergraduate cohort. The day featured speakers from across the department: experimental solid state, high energy physics, the centre for cold matter, astro- and theoretical physics. We had a range of talks where people explained their (sometimes nonlinear) path to a PhD, and how you can still do a PhD even when you’ve got quite a lot of other things going on in your life. We had amazing speakers who really captured how exciting it is to do research in the Blackett Laboratory, and how much it can do for you in the future.
Gwen kicked off the afternoon, introducing us to the need for the undergrads to stay in science. Not just to make the physics department a nicer looking place (;)) but also to contribute their incredible skills to the huge numbers of questions that are still unanswered about the world. Felicity McGrath wowed the undergrads with her immense ability to network (even at home on her farm over Christmas) and impressive skills at acquiring funding and sponsorship. Her contact details will be invaluable to any students wanting to take up a summer placement, attend an academic conference abroad or work in industry. Jasvir gave a very moving talk on being a mother and doing a PhD. Jas is a really inspirational scientist who travels in for over an hour each day, around the school run, and still gets great work done. I think she’s more sociable in the plastic electronics community than I am! Dr. Emily Drabek-Maunder had my favourite line of the day, when she explained how exciting experimental research can be. In the first year of Emily’s PhD at Exeter she secured funding (non-trivial feat) to travel to Hawaii and do some measurements with her supervisor. This required staying up for 14-hour stretches over night at super high altitudes, and Emily wasn’t feeling very well. A bit mopey and unenthusiastic she sat looking at the screens as the data started coming in- and she realised she was the only person in the working at that time seeing what she was seeing. “Oh my god, stars are forming, and I’m the first person to see it!”. This is the kind of sensational thing that happens when you are somewhere as cutting-edge as imperial: science is LIVE and more exciting than you could ever dream of. Izzie explained that electrons are a bit more complicated than little snooker balls (in my mind they are little red snooker balls with ‘e–’ written on them). Izzie is a great contact for DTC interviews, as she has sat on the panel of the interviewing committee. (!) Cat Watkinson and Nicola Black joined at the end for a chat and Q&A, where we gave some pro-tips on summer jobs, PhD apps and research placements.
I gave the students some handy packs of info: some slides, a list of web links for funding and summer schools and our contact details. We fed and watered the poor revising scientists. The undergrads left the afternoon laden with contacts, capri-sun and haribo. It is difficult to tear Imperial physicists away from their revision at this time of year, and I’m really grateful this amazing bunch made it up the ten floors to the seminar room. We will do many more WiP events for them in the future, and show them how awesome the Blackett Laboratory is beyond Lecture Theatre 1.
My favourite quotes of the day:
“Oh my god, stars are forming, and I’m the first person to see it” Hawaii, Dr. Emily D-M
“Don’t look down on anyone unless you are helping them up” Felicity McGrath
“Agreed to send students to summer schools…one was in Irealnd, one was in Birmingham.. but it’s the thought that counts” ” Felicity McGrath
“Combine family trips with conferences.. the last one was San Francisco. My son flew out alone for the second week!” Jasvir B-M
“An electron is actually just a blob of charge, with virtual particles popping into and out of existence all around it” Izzie Rabey
Perfect end to a perfect day: