Thursday, 14 October 2010

The pleasure of finding things out

I am in the privileged position of being about to embark on three exciting years of research of my own devising. I say the ‘privileged position’ because it’s not very often that a researcher is able to do this straight after finishing a PhD. Most scientists, if they want to continue in research, have their work cut out for them – so to speak – by the research group or grant holder who have hired them as a ‘post-doc’ - a postdoctoral researcher. Of course, this may be exactly what the scientist wanted to work on and in any case is probably very interesting, but it’s quite different from my new job. 

In the UK a small number of fellowship schemes exists where an early career scientist can be paid to do research based on their own proposal. Even then, many of them require at least a few years of postdoctoral research before letting you loose with your own ideas. My fellowship comes from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 – that is, it will come from them, assuming that I pass my PhD viva! (Not long to go now…)

It is a great honor to be given one of these fellowships, but not surprisingly, it is a daunting prospect. I hope that my years of training as a scientist will mean that I’m prepared to take on the challenge. Nevertheless, it is a bit like standing on the end of a huge diving board when you’ve pleaded and cajoled your way into being the one allowed to do the dive. It’s exciting, but scary at the same time. What if I’m approaching the topic in the wrong way? What if I’m not ‘smart’ enough? At this stage, naturally, I have a lot more questions than answers…

In preparation for the research topic I’ll be working on, I realised a number of months ago that there was a biennial workshop being held which I thought would be a great way to get a handle on the current status of the field and what other people are working on. You never know, I thought, it might even give me an idea of where to start. 

As I’m kind of in limbo between PhD and post-doc, I applied to the organisers for funding to attend the workshop and was lucky enough to get it. So in a final push I managed to get my PhD thesis in on the Thursday before the workshop and flew to Zurich on the Sunday to get to Morschach, Switzerland for the ICFA Advanced Beam Dynamics Workshop on High-Intensity and High-Brightness Hadron Beams. Yes, that sounds exciting to me. Just so you know.

Naturally, all I wanted to do after handing in my thesis was to have a holiday. But no such luck – as it was an intensive workshop with talks from 8am to 6pm most days. In fact, on at least one day I watched 18 different speakers! There was quite a lot to get my head around but thankfully I came away having learned a lot and with two definite things that I can look at when I start.

But I have to share with you the highlight of the workshop. For me, this was a particular talk which literally gave me goosebumps. Not because it was cold (we were half way up a mountain, after all), but genuinely because I had the experience of really finding out about something new. It was a talk which took everything I knew about designing particle accelerators and almost turned it on its head.

The talk, if you’re interested, was based on this paper. The basic idea they were talking about is not necessarily new, but what was exciting was that for the first time, they seem to have come up with a way of taking what seemed a purely theoretical idea and putting it into practice. What they were talking about is a completely different way of designing particle accelerators and one that until the talk, I’d never heard of or thought about before. 

It opened my eyes to a whole new idea, which – even if it doesn’t work in the end – was an experience that I won’t forget for a while. For that half hour, I suddenly remembered why it is that I do science. It’s not just so that I can help people through the applications of my work, it certainly isn’t to make money! When it comes down to why I get up every day, it is (to take a famous quote and make it my own) the pure pleasure of finding things out.

So with that as inspiration, I am now revising for my PhD viva and really looking forward to embarking on the next few years of research. It will be hard, exhausting and sometimes frustrating but at the end of the day I will have contributed to human knowledge through my own curiosity. To me, there couldn’t be a better job than that.

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