Thursday, 22 December 2011

Last chance pig-out time!

The past month or two has seen some serious deviations from my supposedly healthy lifestyle. Along with having weeks off exercising because of a nagging virus, I've sampled some of the best mince pies around (Daylesford Organic and the Old Farmhouse Bakery in Steventon definitely topped my list), warmed my spirits drinking some amazingly lovely Gl├╝hwein on a quick visit to see friends in Germany and I've been thoroughly enjoying myself eating all the rich lovely food at christmas parties... Top that off with an amazing weekend at a Michelin starred restaurant/hotel in the Cotswolds for my partners birthday and you can see why I'm feeling pretty stuffed! And all of this is before heading down to Dorset this weekend to be spoiled rotten with the mother of all feasts christmas itself.

To be fair, I've managed the occasional run out in the cold with gloves and hat on, but nowhere near as much as I was doing in summer, and certainly not enough to counter all the extra calories, even if shopping for hours and hours is good exercise! But I keep reminding myself that this is actually my last chance pig-out before the new year because starting in a week or two all the extra weight should be gradually dropping off.

No, it's not a miracle weight loss technique (or maybe it is, depending on how you look at it) - it's just exercise! Starting in the new year I'll be training for my first half marathon - the Reading Half Marathon on 1st April 2012. Just before you think I'm crazy, this isn't an unreasonable new years resolution, I signed up for it ages ago and have been running pretty consistently for about 9 months - and was up to comfortably running 15km for my long weekend runs until a virus hit me back in October.

At this stage my aim is just to complete the 13.1 miles and if I end up with a reasonable time then all the better. I've still not decided whether to fundraise for charity but suspect I won't this time around - as most people I know are constantly bombarded with similar requests from people fundraising and I know they all donate generously to charity anyway. So I'd prefer your messages of support!

That means this blog might get a little neglected until after April but in the meantime I'll be keeping a blog about my experience during training and about running the half marathon. Come and have a look!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Science makes us feel stupid

I recently visited a good friend who has always had an awesome attitude to his science. In order to not reveal their name, I will call them Bob.

All through Bob's PhD he always seemed really motivated even when metaphorically beating his head against the wall trying to get some obscure results. But what's important to me as a scientist is that Bob always asked the BEST questions - the ones I really hadn't thought about before but make me think in a new way about my research. I think this quality of Bob's could make him a truly great scientist - I have always really enjoyed having science discussions with him.

I was a bit shocked then, when I caught up with him recently, to find him using words which I keep hearing more and more now that my 'cohort' are finishing PhDs and moving on. For those that choose to continue in research I hear words like "feeling isolated", having a lot of "self-doubt", wondering if science is "for me". I hear people saying this not just occasionally, but when it comes down to it, all the time!

Perhaps I'm only noticing it because I've been doing postdoctoral research for just over a year myself and I have at times (OK, quite often) wondered the same thing?

To top it off I keep discovering awesome scientists leaving science to go and do other things not because there aren't any jobs*, but because they don't enjoy it any more or because they don't feel they are good enough. I've heard this from both men and women, although the women seem to be more open about their feelings and reasons for leaving.

To be fair, a lot of people I know in this position are talented science communicators so will still be using science, just not in a research career. But... surely there is a failing of the "system" somewhere here where our bright, talented, promising PhD graduates suddenly feel like they just aren't up to the task of actually doing science?

It would be easy to blame it on training, on supervisor support, on any number of things. But perhaps it's just that today, more than ever, we strive to have jobs that we enjoy, that mean something to us and that are satisfying. Science is (often) not a satifying job on a day to day basis. You can spend weeks working on a single problem feeling like you're bashing your head against the wall and then discover it was all for nothing.

One of the things I've come to realise is that just loving science isn't quite enough. You have to be prepared to feel stupid on a day-to-day basis. Because sometimes, that's just science. Thanks to a great discussion I had recently with a guy who introduced himself as Bill**  I have come to recognise that it's not just me who feels stupid in science - in fact there are many arguments to be made that if you've stopped feeling stupid then you've stopped really doing science.

This is a career in which we uncover the unknown, and it's not easy. But at the same time, recognising that everyone else feels the same way is worth a lot to me. So for now, at least, I'm sticking with it. I just hope I can convince my friends to do the same...

*As a side note there are obviously many other reasons why people leave science, but this is just one that I've been coming up against a lot recently. The "bright, talented, promising" people that do PhDs often quite rightly feel they would get more satisfaction elsewhere. Somewhere with scientific challenges, but a career that has good rewards for hard work, where their efforts are appreciated (and not quashed by ambitious senior postdocs scrabbling to get recognition to get the next job), and where they feel some level of job security. Because, let's face it, who wants to pay rent and move around the world every 2-3 years? Very few relationships can stand that and anyone wanting to 'settle down' and have kids or buy a house has an almost impossible task if they are in the academic science post-doc circuit unless they are very very lucky.

**turned out he was Bill Phillips, 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

What happens if you put your head in the LHC beam?

I'd like to show you my FameLab SE Final talk, and then further down in this post I'll discuss in more detail what happens when you stick your head in the beam of a particle accelerator. Without further ado, here is the video:

I was a bit nervous being first up on the night, which clearly made me talk really fast. I was wondering how I'd chopped a good 10-15 seconds out of my talk! Well, now I know.

I was inspired to talk about this topic for two reasons: firstly, my PhD was in designing particle accelerators for particle therapy (including proton therapy) which directly uses the beam from an accelerator to treat certain types of cancer. The second reason was that I thought the results which come up when you Google this weren't very satisfactory... Although there is one quite interesting video getting scientists to give their initial thoughts on the effects of putting your hand in the LHC beam

Now down to some science - where did the crazy numbers I gave in my talk come from?

Let's start with how much energy is dumped in your head when the LHC proton beam goes through it. Usually, I would get this data from NIST, but if you visit their website, you'll notice that the data for protons only goes up to about 10 GeV in energy (that is 700 times lower in energy than the nominal LHC proton beam energy). So what do we do?

Let's pretend your head is made of muscle, if you have a look at the graph below of proton energy loss (stopping power) in muscle that I got from the NIST website, you can see that it kind of levels-off at high energies. I took the value of energy loss to be 2.5 MeV/cm (this assumes the density of the head is something like 1.0 g/cm^3, which is the same as water, so pretty reasonable). 

This is the big 'assumption' I had to make as the data simply isn't available for higher energies!

If the head is about 20cm thick (another assumption), each proton loses 50 MeV of energy each time it passes through the head. In joules, this turns out to be 8.011E-12 J, so not much, really!

Now, in the LHC beam there are 1.15E+11 protons per bunch, and 2808 bunches per beam. So this means that the total energy loss per bunch is 0.9213 J and therefore per beam is 2586.88 J - this is a lot! 

The LHC beam is travelling so fast that in one second it can go around the 27km ring about 11,000 times. So if you put your head in the beam for one second, the total energy absorbed by your head would be: 2586.88 x 11,000 = 28,455,659 J. (Here I have assumed that you only get in the way of one (not both) beams, and that the change in position of the beam losing 10% of it's energy would not lose the whole beam in the machine, which might be unrealistic, but not as unrealistic as the idea of putting your head in the beam anyway...)

But Joules don't mean much to anyone, so lets calculate the absorbed radiation dose in Gray (Gy). We know that a dose of 5 Gy will lead to death within 14 days, and this is equivalent to receiving 375 J for a 75kg adult.

So if we divide our energy absorbed (28,455,659 J) by 375 J, we find out that: 

Putting your head in the LHC beam for one second would kill you not just once, but 75,882 times.

If there's one thing I can leave you with, though, it's that proton therapy using smaller accelerators providing much lower doses can (and does!) treat certain types of cancer much more effectively than X-ray radiotherapy. I encourage you to look it up - although for the sake of keeping this post from being thesis-length, I won't describe it here now. Maybe that will have to wait for a future post...

Friday, 18 November 2011

FameLab - SE Regional Final

Just a quick update to say a big congratulations to Andrew Steele who managed to win the SE Final of FameLab at Science Oxford last night with a very impressive talk about climate change, clouds getting whiter, and why perhaps we should be wary of geo-engineering. 

The competition was TOUGH - I have to say I was blown away by the impressive quality of presentations. Lots of people I'd definitely want to work with on sci comm projects in the future.

I was first up - never a good thing for nerves - but I was much happier this time around with how my talk went. I talked about what would happen if you put your head in the beam of a particle accelerator. I won't give away all my tricks quite yet though, I'll wait until the video is up and then write another post around that, including a few calculations I had to do along the way.

A nice surprise was that a guy called Niraj Lal was also competing - he was actually picked as one of the wildcards to possibly go through to the National final. It turns out we know each other from studying Physics at Melbourne Uni. We even spent 2 weeks in the same car on a geeky roadtrip to the middle of the desert in Australia in 2003 to see the total solar eclipse near Ceduna. Amazing to have such a blast from the past - it (and his presentation, which you just have to see to believe) - totally made my night.

Congratulations as well to Ceri Brenner - fellow LMH-alumni and also fellow Rutherford Lab person who was picked as the second wildcard with her talk about laser plasma accelerators. If nothing else, having Andrew (who works with accelerators) and Ceri (who wants to shrink the size of them down) in the National Final will mean lots of accelerator science getting out there, which is a good thing!

Friday, 21 October 2011

FameLab - Oxford Heat 1

Last night was my first foray into the world of "FameLab": a science communication competition which I've been told about for years from friends who do the science/communication double act. It involves talking about science for three minutes. Simple, right?

I have to admit, I was going to enter back in 2009 and ended up having an important meeting on the day and not going... So I was pretty happy when I found out the competition was back on this year, and that I only had to go down the road to Oxford to take part in it.

I know it seems a strange thing to do, so I feel that I have to answer the question "why enter?" As I explained to judge Andrew Pontzen after the event - I've spent 10 years doing "outreach" and science communication mostly to school students where the presenting has been about the demonstrations and most definitely not about me as a presenter. So this competition is my chance to learn and develop my own presentation skills without having a demo or prop as a crutch to fall back on. This is me challenging myself to do something new.

My FameLab journey actually started a couple of weeks ago when I made the choice to sign up for the first Oxford heat - ever since then I've been thinking, watching videos of previous contestants (who are SO amazing!) and having occasional moments of absolute dread thinking "what AM I going to SAY?". I started out with one idea, developed it, practised it and then decided to throw it away a week before the competition. I've never thought in so much detail what to say (and what NOT to say) in 3 minutes. It was tough! What I ended up presenting last night was a topic which I work on and find really interesting, which I thought was a good place to start.

Everyone at Science Oxford on the night was really friendly and helpful, and by the time it got to the second half and I was about to give my talk I was feeling quite (surprisingly) relaxed. It appears I got the nerves out of the way in the week building up to the event - I was SO nervous until that point!

I performed what I'd practised and while it came in a bit short - I'm told I'm the only contestant ever to have finished before the 2:30 bell - I was happy with how it went. It was really great to get the judges feedback and I particularly welcomed Andrew Pontzen's comments about dynamic range. Intentionally changing volume and pace was something which I'd always tried to let happen "naturally". I was really pleased for the tip to intentionally emphasise and create drama by using dynamic range, I'll definitely use this!

My FameLab journey, I'm pleased to say, is not at an end. I was really thrilled when the judges announced that I'd be going through to the South East final in just under a month's time - I'm looking forward to having a chance to really use the tips they gave and get some further feedback.

I feel like I've learned so much already, and can't wait for the next part. The only problem is... what AM I going to SAY!?

Monday, 10 October 2011

Are you a scientist, or a science communicator?

Where do you draw the line between "scientists" and "science communicators"? Do we need dedicated people just to communicate science? Should scientists be trained to do this themselves? And if the "communicators" have to be trained as scientists to degree level, shouldn't they just call themselves "scientists"!?

To a certain extent all scientists communicate their work to other people, even if it's just to their funding agencies, colleagues, family and friends. However well - or badly - they do it is not the point, it still counts as the communication of scientific ideas. 

On the other hand we have the professional science communicator, who still needs to be a trained scientist to degree level, but who has carved out a career by translating complicated concepts into palatable (but not "dumbed down") ideas.

I wonder if it is confusing to members of the public to see science communicated by people who talk about the work of "scientists", but don't profess to be one themselves. [I use the term "public" with that kind of cringe that is reserved for times when I'd like to find a better word to describe "lay-people" but can't think of one.] 

Particularly for the case of school children, doesn't this just create an extra barrier between themselves and the "real" scientists? It's all very well that the communicators are generally young, gender-balanced (as a group, that is) and enthusiastic people, but do the audience walk away wondering what the "real" scientists are like? Do they still assume that they are white middle-aged men like they see in textbooks and in pictures on the classroom wall? (Newton, Einstein, Rutherford anyone?)

It's great that we now have "real" scientists who are also fantastic communicators on TV, and I think this is definitely the way it should be. But... does this make 'science communicators' redundant (except perhaps in science journalism)? How much does credibility matter? Should science museum presenters be part-time researchers? What if they are presenting something out of their 'field'? What if a scientist is presenting something that isn't their research?

I would love to believe that we simply play complimentary roles where communication experts can help science experts and vice versa. But of course, when it comes down to it the communicator has to make money from this whereas the scientist doesn't. That, if nothing else, must surely change the game.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Future science leaders

I normally approach careers workshops with a slight trepidation, quite sensibly avoiding events which spend the whole time explaining to me in intricate detail why I should change my career choice (Even now I can hear imaginary careers counsellors saying "Stop! Go and do something else! Make lots of money! Who cares about job satisfaction!?"). After all, my imaginary careers counsellors argue, why would I want to be a research scientist?

I want to be a research scientist because I am passionate about research; about finding out new things and trying to use that knowledge to improve our lives. I am confident (for now) in the choice of my career and while I know I have other options, I don't want to pursue them right now. So you can imagine that I didn't really know what to expect from a two day workshop in Oxford for "Future Science Leaders". Well, what can I say? It was absolutely brilliant!

Finally, I had a chance to chat (often one-to-one) with successful scientists who have eminent careers in research science. We had talks from Jocelyn Bell Burnell, William Phillips and other very eminent scientists - too many amazing people to list! Most of them were female but ALL of them were absolutely inspiring.

The speakers shared advice on everything from tools to keep your travel organised (thanks to Alyssa Goodman, I now use the wonderful TripIt!), to how to approach eminent scientists at conferences without saying "lovely weather, isn't it?" thanks to Catherine Heymans.

It was an amazing opportunity to chat to the speakers about issues like the retention (and uptake) of women in science, and the advice on keeping your profile high was invaluable. There were also some great ideas for presentations and advice on giving sessions in schools.

I particularly liked one very practical piece of advice which I'll share with you here: when you're at a conference wear your badge high and on the right side - that way when you meet someone and shake hands they will read your name even if they don't hear it.

The most important thing I learned though, courtesy of Katherine Blundell who organised the workshop, is to be confident in my own research, and when self doubt creeps in, to tackle it with sheer hard work. Good advice, if I ever heard it!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Make your own cloud chamber

I recently had the pleasure of spending a Saturday with about 25 teachers from around Oxford and the UK (one had even come over from Poland!) for the APPEAL-2 programme run by the John Adams Institute at the University of Oxford.

The day was packed full of interesting lectures about particle physics, cosmology and particle accelerators. After lunch, the teachers descended to the basement of the physics building into the undergraduate laboratories where I held a workshop making small cloud chambers out of (mostly) household materials.

When I was developing the workshop, a colleague from Oxford (Andrew) was kind enough to film a short video about cloud chambers with me. He did an amazing job managing to film the chamber working and even finding a really snazzy thermal camera to show the temperature difference in the cloud chamber.

The thing I find so amazing about these simple devices is that they allow us to see tiny charged particles that we otherwise wouldn't know were there. The particles are called muons and are created when high energy cosmic rays from outer space interact with atoms in the Earth's upper atmosphere. These collisions produce particles called pions which very quickly decay into muons.

Muons are like electrons but they are 200 times heavier and are unstable. Normally, muons decay (into an electron & 2 neutrinos) in 2.2 millionths of a second (!) and wouldn't even last as long as it takes to get from the atmosphere to Earth. The fact that we observe them at all is really strong evidence of time dilation in Special Relativity.

Because muons are heavier than electrons, they don't interact as easily with matter, so can pass straight through the air, the buildings we're in, and tens of metres into the Earth. This is another reason why some particle physics experiments have to be buried deep underground, so that they don't see these cosmic ray muons!

Interestingly, about half of the muons we observe in a cloud chamber are positive and half negatively charged - we could find that out by bending the particles using a magnetic field, positive particles would go one way and negative the other. The negatively charged ones are 'matter' particles, but the positive ones are actually anti-matter. I think it's pretty amazing that we can observe antimatter with such a simple experiment!

I'm glad to say that 9 out of 10 of the chambers that the teachers constructed really worked, even if we were running a little short on dry ice towards the end of the session!

Thursday, 30 June 2011

A great accelerator demo

I recently re-discovered this fantastic accelerator demonstration using a bowl and a ping-pong ball from Todd Johnson at Fermilab.

The thing I think is great about this demo is two-fold. First, the principle of acceleration is pretty straightforward; for a particle with a constant charge you need to have the right polarity (+/-) on the strips at the right time to make it accelerate. The second great thing to show is the analogy of the bowl as the magnetic field. This is especially relevant to the machines I work on, called FFAGs, as the magnetic field really does increase radially, so the particles spiral outwards just like in the bowl as they gain energy. But they don't spiral out *too* much, because the field gradient keeps them confined to a fairly tight circle, just like the curvature of the bowl does for the ping-pong balls.

I really want to make one to use in a new public lecture, so I contacted Todd about how he made it. I hope I can convince someone to help me, although I'm still a bit worried about the danger of using 15kV in a public demonstration.

In case you want to re-create it yourself, here is what he told me about it:

"The power supply I used is a surplus unit which provides about 15KV from a 12VDC input, intended to be used in an "air ionizer". Sadly these devices have disappeared from the market.  Several manufacturers make small DC/DC converters that look like they would do the job nicely, for example:  These cost about $250 or so as I recall.

The clear "bowl" is actually a custom made part. I had found some serving bowls which worked well for the first couple of these I made but of course those also soon disappeared from the market.  The key feature is that there should be a central flat spot which then meets the curved side with no discontinuity. Any faint corner or step will trap the ball and prevent it from accelerating, due to friction between the two points of contact at different radii it will then have. My hemisphere was fabricated by a company that makes acrylic domes, and they were able to accommodate my request for a flat spot in the center. A regular hemisphere will also work, however the ball will need a  push to start it since with zero initial momentum it cannot travel from one set of electrodes to the other set (which would of necessity be uphill).

The ping pong ball is coated with a carbon-based conductive paint called "wire glue" which I found locally. I'm sure that coatings such as "Aquadag" would also work well. I gave the coating a protective layer of clear spray enamel (Krylon), which seems to make it extremely rugged and does not significantly affect the conductivity at the voltages involved.

Regarding the safety issue, it is not apparent from the video but there is an acrylic cover over the device which prevents onlookers from reaching in and contacting both sets of electrodes. The cover also improves the performance by allowing the air to begin to move along with the ball rather than remaining turbulent as it would if the top were open to the room."

Monday, 27 June 2011

Thoughts on a train

I was just thinking today that the machines I work with, particle accelerators, really sound too good to be true. My argument for this (in my head, on the train, to myself...) went something like this:

Imagine a tool that can see inside matter, right down to the level of atoms. This tool can not only see what types of atoms there are, but also where they are and what they're doing. Imagine how powerful that would be - being able to see proteins unfolding in real time, seeing how materials work from the inside, finding out all of nature's little secrets with ease. Then imagine that the same tool can be used to diagnose and treat diseases, like cancer for example. Not only that, but you can also use it to help in fields like security for scanning whole truckloads of cargo and in energy for driving new types of inherently safe nuclear reactors. Add to this the fact that you can use this tool to learn about the fundamental laws of nature, how the Universe evolved, answering some of the "big questions" of human-kind. But going beyond that, it can even create new matter that doesn't exist on Earth. (My head rambled on a bit more but I'll spare you the pain...)

You'd think "well, that's a pretty awesome tool..." and you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was, in fact, the ultimate scientific tool.

In my opinion, you'd be right.

Then I looked out the window as the train travelled from Wolverhampton towards Crewe, only 10 minutes behind schedule and thought: Imagine what we could do if we made this tool even better?

That's what I do. That is my research.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Is all publicity good publicity?

Over the past few weeks there have been two pretty misleading articles written about one of the projects I work on, called EMMA. 

The first article appeared in the Mail on Sunday, who at least can be credited with visiting the facility. But here is the problem: the article is still pretty inaccurate, one could say downright misleading in some cases. From reading it, I can only assume that it came out this way because of some miscommunication between the person giving the tour and the journalist.

EDIT (23/6/11): For the record, the facts in the Mail on Sunday article are pretty much solid. They could have been presented in a slightly less misleading way, clearly, or the other articles which I discuss below would not have gotten the facts so wrong. The article calls EMMA 'pocket-sized' and then says you can use a 'pocket-sized' accelerator to drive an ADSR thorium reactor. While it later states you need a 1 GeV proton accelerator, I believe this is the cause of confusion...

I thought that was it. But to my (and everyone else's) surprise, it then appears on the Fox news website. Now, not only does this new article mention nuclear *fusion* in a thorium reactor (it ought to be *fission*) but also implies how this 'pocket sized' particle accelerator called EMMA could not only "power" a thorium reactor but also one day be shrunk down to "luggage size".

This new article almost sent me into a fit of rage. I am used to the press getting facts slightly wrong, but this seems to be a case of someone not giving the facts correctly, or not giving them in such a way that the journalist could understand. I don't know who actually gave the information, so I'm not blaming anyone here... 

EDIT (22/6/11): OK this is getting ridiculous, I just found this one, which is so absolutely and completely wrong that I am now compelled to contact them. Oh, and another one talking about fusion (thanks to one my colleagues for sending these) - I've tweeted the author of that one, I hope he read the info below!
While I'm at it, here's some more who've taken the Daily Mail or Fox News' articles and perpetuated the problem:
Propulsiontech (a blog I assume)

But this incident has really made me question whether all publicity is good publicity. In my position as an early career researcher on the project, I can only see that this going to negatively impact me. 

If you claim you're going to save the world and cure cancer you've got a lot to live up to... so what happens when it turns out to be not *quite* as true as the news articles claim? 

Isn't it better to be cautious about what you claim you could do and then wow everyone with your amazing research? Certainly anyone on any funding board would see straight through these claims and wonder why they were being made in the first place. 

Worrying. Very worrying. I'd love to have some feedback of what you think of this situation. 

To clear up the issues that I have with both articles, here are the facts:

  • EMMA is the Electron Model for Many Applications and is the first non-scaling fixed-field alternating gradient (NS-FFAG) accelerator in the world.
  • It is a prototype machine based on the parameters required for accelerating muons for a neutrino factory, designed to accelerate relativistic particles extremely quickly.
  • It accelerates electrons from 10-20 MeV (this is quite a low energy, that's why EMMA is so small!)
  • A thorium ADSR would require a PROTON beam of 1 GeV, note that in this energy range protons are NOT ultra-relativistic, so the same acceleration mechanism (called serpentine acceleration) used in EMMA is not possible.
  • Accelerating protons to 1 GeV necessarily requires a LARGER machine, and sadly there is not getting around the laws of physics. A higher energy beam with heavier particles requires either much stronger magnets or a much larger bending radius than EMMA to go around in a circle.
  • That said, EMMA is a very compact machine. However research carried out in the last few years indicates that you couldn't use the same design as EMMA for a proton machine anyway, because of very strict tolerances on alignment errors and the difficulty of getting a beam in or out of such a densely packed & compact machine.
  • Because of this, the idea of a "suitcase sized" non-scaling FFAG is a complete lie. I have no idea where this originated.
  • The only "suitcase sized" accelerators possible would be based on radical new technology like a laser plasma wakefield accelerator. Maybe one day they will be possible, but certainly not with the technology discussed in these articles.
There you go. There are the facts. From the horse's mouth, as it were...

Monday, 16 May 2011

Unstable funding and the Aussie brain drain

I don't often write about science in my native Australia, but this is something which has been building up to a post for a little while...

The Australian Synchrotron officially opened its doors to users in July 2007 and is the second of only two synchrotrons in the southern hemisphere. Since then it seems to have suffered a regular series of management disasters and now, just as things seem to be looking up, the threat of no future funding.

“The Age” even went so far as to suggest that the facility could be shut down next year. If Australia can’t get it’s priorities right to ensure that their major facilities continue running, I can only imagine how hard it is for the scientists who rely on the facility for their research. Why should anyone be surprised that there is a ‘brain drain’ in Australia?

If it were me, I’d be off to do my research somewhere that I didn’t think would suddenly pull the resources out from under my feet. Impressively, though, the scientists at the synchrotron are continuing to plan for expansion to utilize the space available for more beam lines.

This whole situation can cause nothing but stress and uncertainty, which can’t be healthy for a community that has already been through so much controversy. While their “Aussie battler” spirit impresses me, I sincerely hope a solid funding announcement comes soon.

What is the wider impact of such instability in funding? Are Aussie scientists just going to get up and leave? Even if they aren’t, it certainly can’t be doing much to attract top talent from abroad.

It does rather beg the question of why Australia aren’t doing more to ensure that top scientists view the country as a good place to work? I have been shocked on a number of occasions to hear Europeans dismiss Australia out of hand as having “no science”. They DO have science. They DO have facilities. But unless those facilities are stable and supported wholeheartedly by the government, the only attractions to live there are the sun and the surf. Not the science.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Exciting news about EMMA: A world first in the UK!

This post is a week or so late as I've been at a conference in Glasgow, but we recently had some very exciting news: the announcement of a major milestone for one of the projects I'm involved in. We had first acceleration in EMMA!

EMMA is the "electron model for many applications" and is the first accelerator if its kind anywhere in the world. It is a prototype or proof-of-principle machine for a technology which could pave the way to new accelerators for cancer treatment, energy production and other applications. I've been involved in the project since its design stages so for me, this is something to celebrate! 

The type of accelerator is called a non-scaling FFAG, which stands for fixed-field alternating-gradient accelerator. The name, while complicated, doesn't do justice to the beauty or the simplicity of this machine. I like to think of it as a clever combination of two existing types of accelerator, the cyclotron and the synchrotron.

One of the first kinds of circular particle accelerator was the 'cyclotron', where the beam spirals outward as it gains energy, and the beam is confined by a constant magnetic field. The magnets of these machines become unwieldly for high energies (I'm talking 700 tons and up!) making the magnets expensive, particularly in terms of the cost of iron for such a big magnet! They have other issues reaching high energies too.

The other type of circular accelerator we usually use is the synchrotron. This is the type of machine most people think of nowadays as an accelerator. Not least because the LHC is a synchrotron, and so are two of the major scientific facilities in the UK; Diamond (the synchrotron light source) and ISIS spallation neutron source. 

A synchrotron uses a principle called 'strong focusing' where you have focusing and defocusing magnets alternating around the ring. Also known as alternating gradient focusing, this gives you stronger focusing than in the cyclotron. (We have to have the alternating gradient as the magnets focus in one plane and defocus in the other!) 

The beam doesn't spiral out in this machine as the magnet strengths are ramped so that the beam stays at the same radius. That means that you can have a ring of small aperture magnets, so it looks rather different to the cyclotron. At the same time, the particles get faster as they gain energy, so the accelerating 'cavities' that give the beam an energy kick each time it goes around, have to be timed perfectly with the magnet ramp and the energy gain. It has to be 'synchronous', hence the term 'synchrotron'.

The FFAG is almost a combination of the two. We take the strong focusing of the synchrotron, meaning that the machine is ring-like. But we also take the fixed magnetic field. But now we increase the field with the radius of the machine. What it means it that the particles spiral out a little bit during acceleration, but nowhere near as much as in a cyclotron. FFAGs have been built before, but the magnetic fields were complicated and followed a very exact 'scaling law' that their original designers in the 1950's and '60s calculated would keep the particle beam stable.

So what is different about EMMA? In the 1990's it was realised that it might be possible to break this 'scaling law' and dramatically simplify the FFAG. This is why the machine is called 'non-scaling'! EMMA uses very simple magnets (just quadrupoles, like the focusing/defocusing magnets in a synchrotron) to provide both the bending and focusing. It is a ring like a synchrotron, but can be made much smaller because the same magnets are used for both bending and focusing.

In a way, the FFAG is the ultimate particle accelerator. It opens up the continuum of designs between the cyclotron and the synchrotron, and can access the benefits of both types of machines in terms of energy reach, beam intensity, machine size etc...

There are some really new ideas in this machine. We are attempting to build an accelerator which relies on at least two things which have never been done (intentionally, at least!) in other accelerators. First, we intentionally make the beam cross through resonances, which are usually strictly and painstakingly avoided in other machines! The idea here is that if you cross through a resonance quickly enough it doesn't have time to build up and the beam will be fine. We've also had to use a completely new type of acceleration (called serpentine acceleration) to get the electrons in EMMA from 10 to 20 MeV.

Understandably, given the challenges in this machine and the number of world firsts, it wasn't going to be easy to get it working! But after many late-night shifts at STFC Daresbury Laboratory, we are finally starting to see the fruit of our efforts. 

Personally, the first time I saw on the oscilloscope that little beam moving outward during acceleration I had a little flutter of excitement. It wasn't the big "eureka" that is so often portrayed, it was the result of painstaking work, hours and hours of late night shifts and detailed calculations of what exactly was happening to the beam. Even then, what if we were seeing something else? What if we weren't REALLY accelerating? Our scientific training leads us to naturally doubt our own results, even as we produced them!

Thankfully, we're now convinced of our own results! The official announcement is below and work in commissioning the machine is ongoing. 

I have to say this is an amazing leap forward and I only hope that this type of accelerator really takes hold in the future.

The official announcement reads:
"During the last three to four days, the EMMA accelerator physics team have been tuning the accelerator settings as part of the systematic studies towards first acceleration within EMMA. The team have studied the interaction of the RF field with the beam, on more than one occasion, with different accelerator settings in order to tune and understand the acceleration process. Detailed analysis of one of the data sets from an early run in this period has just confirmed acceleration. This analysis indicates that the injected EMMA beam energy has been increased by a few MeV. The acceleration is clearly detected by the high resolution, turn by turn, beam position monitoring system.
This is a very significant achievement for the scientists and technologists who designed and assembled this unique accelerator before embarking on the present programme which has rigorously studied, commissioned and developed the systems and processes required to take this step forward. The team includes STFC staff, members of the Cockcroft and John Adams accelerator institutes, university colleagues and a number of international experts from the FFAG community who have supported the project with their expertise from conception. 

The next steps will be to move towards acceleration over the full range, from 10 to 20 MeV and commence the detailed characterisation of the EMMA accelerator and its novel acceleration scheme.
The picture shows an image of the accelerated, extracted EMMA beam on the first screen of the diagnostics line taken on 17:53 on Tuesday 29th March."

Monday, 28 March 2011

Reflections on "I'm a Scientist"

“I’m a Scientist” finally ended last Friday with victory for Adam in the Space zone. (Commiserations to Sheila, a valiant effort). I managed to last until the second last eviction in the Space Zone (making me third in our zone), and I think it’s about time I reflected on my experience in the competition and some lessons I learned from it.

Sorry all, this is going to be a long one...

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d just like to say that overall I have learned many things from this competition and while I had my ups and downs, overall I think it was a positive experience. There were times when I really did get a buzz from it, when students thought my research was great or when they realised that I’m just a normal person – especially so with some of the female students who realised that I was just as ‘girly’ as them!

From the feedback I’ve had from teachers it is a hugely positive thing for students, so what I say below is trying to be fair and balanced. I’m writing this the week after the event after some reflection. These are the lessons I learned which will help to inform me in my future science communication activities. I hope they might be useful to others!

Before you read below… I get that it’s a point of the competition that students learn that scientists don’t know everything and that we specialise in our own area. I also get that the un-confrontational nature of online communication helps the quieter students to ask questions that they might not otherwise, which I think is fantastic.

I came into this event without many expectations, but I’ve come away from it having learned a lot about online communication and my priorities as both a scientist and a communicator. I enjoyed it and for that reason I’d like to thank to the organisers for what is a hugely popular and successful event.

Lesson 1: Be realistic about time commitment

On the surface, two hours a day didn’t seem like a huge time commitment, and I thought that I’d do one half-hour chat a day (in my ‘break’ time) and fit in the questions from students in the evening. But let me tell you right now, it doesn’t work like that. To have any chance of really engaging with the students I found I needed to dedicate as much time as possible. This was no surprise as others have pointed out, but this meant attending every chat I could (though I didn’t attend all of them) and answering every offline question.

Forget about having a life in the evenings, I was on the couch with my laptop dredging up long-forgotten facts from my undergraduate days. Any less and I have no doubt that I’d have been evicted first round!

Lesson 2: The pros and cons of competitions

I’m going to be intentionally controversial here to see what people think: I don’t see why this needs to be a competition. I understand the argument that it makes it more real for the students, putting them in control. However, I think the ‘money’ and the ‘voting’ detracts from the event and I’d even go so far as to say that this aspect is counter-productive. All the students seemed to want to do was chat and ask questions and giving them this ‘power’ to vote seemed to distract more than anything.

As a scientist I voluntarily gave up my time and energy to chat with these students and answer their questions. The £500 prize wouldn’t even cover my time for that period, let alone enable me to do a ‘serious’ outreach activity. My last outreach program cost £8000. 
I’m not saying I couldn’t do anything at all with £500 but honestly; is £500 enough for outreach which has any large, meaningful impact?

On the one hand it was interesting to try to get across to the students the fact that £500 isn’t a life-changing amount of money, but on the other hand, shouldn’t we have been chatting about science and life as a scientist?

Lesson 3: The importance of knowing your audience

Even with a huge time commitment I didn’t feel like I did many of the good questions justice… but there didn’t seem any way around this. I still have a job to do, but there are lots of students and lots of questions (some more relevant than others…)

There are inherent problems with online communication. Particularly with the offline questions I had no idea if I was answering to a 13 year old or a 19 year old. If there is one thing I know about communication it’s that knowing your audience is key. Yet in this case, 
I didn’t know my audience. This seemed like a barrier to good communication.

The online chats were better as we at least knew the age group of the students. These were sometimes fun and sometimes slightly irritating, but always fast-paced and hectic. I think this is where much of the real engagement happened as it really was two-way communication.

Lesson 4: Think about the wider implications (good and bad)

The good thing is that questions and answers by scientists are searchable and online after the event. I hope that this will lead to a wider engagement than just the students we chatted to, although I’m not sure that my hurried answers without reference or fact checking are really the best source of information! (Even if there are almost 300 of them.)

In one or two cases I actually went back and edited answers after some further reflection. I’m only human and can’t remember everything. But at the same time, I didn’t think the point of the competition was sitting on Google every evening finding answers to things I couldn’t remember, so I made an active decision not to do this as, surely, it doesn’t help anyone.

I fully expect some fallout from this event once other scientists discover and disagree with some of my answers. It’s only natural, since 99 percent of the factual questions asked were not things I would say I’m an expert in. This is OK, but it’s not something I thought about before I went into the event.

Lesson 5: How much experience is required?

If you are a scientist but the thought of getting up in front of a class of school kids makes your palms sweat with an extraordinary kind of fear, then I strongly urge you to register for “I’m A Scientist”. I have no doubt you’ll love it, and get a lot out of it!

I did get the impression that there were some very talented communicators amongst the scientists and it seemed a pity that some of their (obvious) talents were slightly wasted by being in an online event.

The event is a great opportunity to get more scientists communicating with students, which I think really ought to be the aim. It is important to make clear the level of experience required for an event, especially where less experience could mean a greater impact.

Friday, 25 March 2011

I'm A Scientist: back to reality

Well yesterday was my final day of "I'm A Scientist" as I was officially evicted from the Space Zone - no hard feelings though, making it to the last three seems to have been quite an achievement.

I'll follow this up with a longer post about how I found the competition, but for now I'd just like to thank the organisers who have obviously put in loads of hard work to get this competition to where it is now.

I better crack on with some work now, but from this point I'll be happy for either of Sheila or Adam to win. They have both been fantastic competitors and may the best woman win! (Oh, am I showing a preference there...?)

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

I'm a Scientist - still in!

I've managed to survive the second eviction! Quite surprising really, I thought my views on the ethics of shopping at Primark had ruined my chances.

Sad to see Geoff and Rob go, but hope to meet them both (along with the others) to perhaps work together on some outreach activities in the future.

I hope all the students are still interested and still voting. I'm not sure that quite as many of them vote in the latter stages of the competition, as they have to do it in their spare time.

It's been quite strange not having any live chats today in the Space Zone... I'm looking forward to a few more tomorrow.

Bring it on Adam & Sheila!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

I'm a scientist - evictions looming

We're just half an hour away from the first evictions in "I'm A Scientist"...

How am I feeling? Pretty good actually. There have definitely been highs and lows throughout the last week and a bit. Last night (as my blog post yesterday probably gets across) I was a bit sick of it and struggling to see the point. I concluded that the impact I was making was not big enough for the time I was spending on it and was almost even feeling a bit exploited by the whole enterprise.

I think the reason for this was because of the difficulty in communicating online. Communication is a two-way affair and while the students get some background information on us, I have literally no idea who I'm dealing with or their level of knowledge, let alone any clues to their personality. That makes the whole thing a lot more difficult... which I'm not used to because I'm used to dealing with this age group in person. It's a totally different experience and one that I was, I admit, struggling with a bit!

But then... I had some really lovely emails from teachers and some good feedback from scientists on twitter which were really encouraging. This morning I had two lovely chats which had some good questions and a good level of general banter... and now I find myself enjoying it again.

I'm starting to see the benefits of online communication - although it's harder for me it's probably easier for the students to be bold and ask questions that they wouldn't otherwise ask. I mean, where else are you going to ask that nagging question about how light travels through glass?

So I just wanted to say: I don't want to go out now... not as I've just started to enjoy myself!

But even if I do I think I've learned something. I will probably have more time to reflect on this in coming days, because I don't think I can win after outraging a group of teenage girls in a chat by saying that I think Primark has unethical trading practises... but I will try my hardest anyway!

There is  consolation if I'm evicted this afternoon though... as I'm currently getting prepped for a black-tie dinner in London tonight in the presence of HRH Prince Phillip.

But as I've been trying to tell the students, my life doesn't fit stereotypes. I'm not a middle aged male in a lab coat. I'm not a white haired professor. I'm just a normal person whose job is science. But then, just occasionally, even being a scientist can be a little bit glamorous...

EDIT: I haven't been evicted. Not today at least. So tonight shall now be a celebration. Woo!

Monday, 21 March 2011

I'm a scientist - the experience so far

A week has passed in "I'm A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here" and a LOT has happened.

So far, I've answered about 175 offline questions, everything from "are you married" to "What causes the nuclear strong force?" and just about every conceivable question in between. Some of these questions are really technical which took me by surprise. I was in two minds about whether to answer such technical questions, but made the effort in the end. After being dubious that the answers would even be read, it turns out that the students asking the technical questions are often the most switched on students - who have already told me they want to study particle physics at university! Well, at least they are voting for me.

The chats are not what I expected. I've worked a lot with students in this age group (11-17) and know what they can be like... but I somehow expected them to have a little more respect for the scientists who have given up their time to chat to them. Perhaps a bit more briefing is needed here? 

The students seem to think we're all in this for the money, which to them seems a life-changing amount but to me seems like small change compared to my previous outreach projects. There seems to be a lack of understanding as to why we're doing this, despite us answering questions along those lines, and I would be surprised if even half of the students have actually read our profiles! 

I asked one student if he had read my profile, and he said "nah, I've got more important things to do". I'm sorry mate, but I've got more important things to do than answer your completely irrelevant question about biology, I'm a physicist! (I know the idea is that the students learn that scientists don't know everything, but I do seem to be one of the only people who have adopted the "I don't google" approach - I answer with what comes to mind. I thought that was the point!)

The chats can be completely random, sometimes I really enjoy them and sometimes I wonder why I bother. I was almost upset the other day when one student just kept asking me the same question which I'd told them I didn't know anything about! But on the other hand, I've had some great questions in the chats about work/life balance and how my research will help people. I'm not sure how much the students get out of the chats, but I hope at least they are inspiring some new questions.

Heading in to week 2 I'm a lot calmer after having a weekend to reflect on the competition. There are a lot of great kids out there asking some truly interesting questions. But I've learned something: I now know for sure that my outreach talents are better used live on stage or on camera than behind a computer. After all, you can't substitute for almost a decade of experience.

And just quietly... I'm really looking forward to having time to do my proper work again!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

I'm a scientist - I've decided what to do if I win!!

After doing an online poll the two things you guys seemed to want was either to visit my lab or for me to buy a piece of equipment for your school. It’s easy to organise visits to my lab through the lab itself (STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) so instead I’ve decided to put the money towards YOUR science ideas!
The best 2 proposals I receive for science projects that need some money for a piece of equipment will WIN! 
All you need to do is to email:
And include the following information:
  • Project Title
  • A 300 word description of your project & why it’s important
  • What you’re going to spend the money on
  • Your name, school and some way to contact you (email is fine) to tell you if you’ve won!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

What to do with the IAS prize money?

If I win the I'm A Scientist Get Me Out of Here "Space zone" then I'll have £500 to spend on something outreach-y. Vote for what you think I should do with the money:


Thursday, 10 March 2011

I’m a Scientist... no thanks to you!

I never considered being a scientist at school. It wasn’t that I didn’t like science – I enjoyed doing chemistry, physics, psychology and mathematics because I found them easy. Unlike the humanities, the sciences were somehow intuitive to me. A friend once told me I should be a scientist, but only because she thought I looked good in a lab coat and safety glasses!

The problem was that whenever I saw a careers adviser the term “scientist” or “research scientist” never came up. It was always “engineer” of one form or another. I went to an all girls school near Melbourne, Australia, where the general consensus was that to have a respectable ‘profession’ anyone interested in science ought to be an engineer. Is this still the case? I’ve no idea. It might have been a failing of the specific careers adviser, but I never had any teachers suggest that research science was a viable career either.  Not once.  (Of course, I could have done engineering and gone into research that way, but no-one ever explained that to me either!)

To add insult to injury, I was actively deterred from studying science at university by my father. At the time, he was a high school maths teacher who had a brief spell doing a research Masters in Science (in artificial intelligence) as a mature age student. He never finished the Masters and became rather disillusioned with research in general*.

I blatantly lied to him at the end of school and told him that I didn’t get into the Engineering/Commerce double degree he wanted me to do because I didn’t have the marks. I did have the marks – but I never put it on my course preferences list. I chose an Engineering/Science double degree instead because somehow, I didn’t want to give up on that word “science” just yet. (If he reads this blog, I’ve just been found out!)

All was going well when I decided, after two years of university, to drop the engineering degree and only complete the science one. Sadly, my dad and I didn’t speak for years afterward because he thought I was making a mistake. To his credit, he was just trying to ensure that at the end of my studies there would be a job for me, and I can see how his own experience would lead him to discourage me from the action I took. At the time, though, I was taking a risk and following my heart. It wasn’t a light decision, but I was lucky to have an inspiring lecturer (Dr. Roger Rassool) to thank for giving me the courage to stick to my guns and do what I knew was right for me. After this, Roger and I did outreach together for years and he remains a good friend today.

Fast forward 6 years and shift from Australia to the UK, and I’m now the first in my family to have PhD and I’m lucky enough to have a highly sought-after research fellowship to pursue my research. I’m also glad to say that my Dad has finally realized that science was the right move for me after all.

So, to all of the students who I’ll be chatting to during “I’m a Scientist” I hope that whatever you want to do, you’ll follow your heart. Research science can be competitive and it can be tough but it is an interesting, challenging and ultimately rewarding career.

At the end of my days I’d like to be able to say I made a difference, that I made a contribution to human knowledge. After all, exploring and learning about the world is a part of being human. Be a part of that.

*On a positive note, after years running his own business my Dad recently went back to university as a mature age student and became a lawyer, top of his class, good on him!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

I'm a Scientist - Get Me Out of Here!

Take a few scientists, a massive group of school kids and an internet forum X-factor style competition. What do you get? The "I'm a Scientist" competition. I'm one of five scientists in this year's "Space Zone" and you can check out my competitors here.

There will be a bit of a takeover of my blog of my thoughts and impressions of the competition. So far, all I can say is I think its going to be tough. Now, as an Aussie I'm pretty competitive, but actually I don't need to win this one, because I think some of the others might appreciate the prize money (£500 towards outreach) more that I will. That said, I can unashamedly say: vote for me! 

What I'd like to get out of the competition is a consensus from the school students as to what they want from scientists like me. Do they want me to visit them at school? Do they want me to write a blog? Do they want me to leave them alone to get on with their exams!? I hope some of their questions will point me in the right direction, but I'm really looking forward to the live chats to do some 2-way science communication.

In the meantime I better get as much research done as I can, because from 14-25th March this thing might just take over my life!

You can follow the progress on Twitter with the #IAS2011 hashtag, or follow me at @suziesheehy.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A word of encouragement

I was sad to read this blog the other day. I found it worth the read because I never want to feel that way about my job. It is about a successful academic gets sick of the rat race and has left academia. He even likens doing science to a drug addiction. 

While some comments ring true, the only thing I could think of was this anonymous poem that I discovered many years ago, which I like to remind myself of on occasions like this. I thought I'd share it here, and I hope it might come in useful to someone else out there.

If there was ever a time to dare,
To make a difference,
To embark on something worth doing,
It is now.
Not for any grand cause, necessarily...
But for something that tugs at your heart,
Something that's your inspiration,
Something that's your dream.
You owe it to yourself
To make your days here count.
Have fun.
Dig deep. 

Dream big.
Know, though, that things worth doing
seldom come easy.
There will be good days.
And there will be bad days.
There will be times when you want to turn around,
pack it up, and call it quits.
Those times tell you
That you are pushing yourself,
That you are not afraid to learn by trying.
Because with an idea,
Determination, and the right tools,
You can do great things.
Let your instincts, your intellect,
And your heart, guide you.
Believe in the incredible power of the human mind.
Of doing something that makes a difference.
Of working hard.
Of laughing and hoping.
Of lazy afternoons.
Of lasting friends.
Of all the things that will cross your path this year.
The start of something new
Brings the hope of something great,
Anything is possible. 

Thursday, 17 February 2011


In my latest post I was considering changing the name of this blog in order to "not give false impressions". You know what? I've changed my mind. I'm keeping the name. But this brings me to a greater issue: why did I feel I couldn't "just be me" in writing this blog?

It seems pretty obvious, but I am not a stereotype. I'm not a 'typical geek' or a 'girly girl' or anything else that you care to mention, I'm just me.

This change in view comes after I was pointed to this blog by my friend @twhyntie, which was a bit of a cause for discussion on twitter between @hannahdev (Science correspondent for The Times and Eureka) and @AngelaDSaini (Science Journalist and author).

I think there is one obvious answer as to whether you should "dress down" when working in science. Absolutely not. I'm sure my (almost entirely male) colleagues don't give a damn what I wear to work. If I wanted to wear a pink matching parachute tracksuit they probably wouldn't bat an eyelid. Just as they wouldn't if I happened to be wearing Alexander McQueen or the most awesome Manolo Blahniks. Although why I'd want to wear either of those to work I've no idea, it's probably a health and safety hazard.

What I wear and my appearance in general is something that I do to please me, because it feels good to look good. If it doesn't do the same for you don't bother, it doesn't have to, each to their own. I'm certain that no-one thinks that my work suffers for it, and I'm certainly not going to go around acting like it makes any difference at all.

I'd have to say, if you think people are judging your work by the way you look, it's probably not the way you look, it's most likely your work. If they are judging you unfairly then that is their own problem, not yours, and it's something they should look at.

Have the confidence to wear whatever you want. Alright, rant over.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Time for a change? Your help needed.

Dear readers,

It has recently been brought to my attention that the name previous layout of my blog may be giving one of two impressions:

1. That I think women in science should be stereotypically girly and love shoes and clothes as much as I do


2. That I'm being ironic because women can't wear heels in the lab because it compromises health & safety

I'd just like to say that I was not intentionally trying to give either of these impressions. I happen to like clothes & shoes, and I happen to work in a facility which has the title of a Lab.

So, I think it's time for a change. You'll note that I've changed the background already but now I'm looking for a new blog title (& subtitle... I've never liked the current one).

Please comment your suggestions, they ought to reflect the fact that the blog is written by a female scientist and will therefore contain views on science and being a female researcher.

Thanks and I hope this is a step forward. Thoughts are welcome.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Real Deal: Marieke Navin, particle physicist turned science communicator

In the 3rd post of the series, I interviewed Marieke Navin, an enthusiastic and talented science communicator with a PhD in particle physics and a long-held dream of being an astronaut. Here's what she had to tell me.

You can find Marieke on twitter: @lisamarieke

Tell us about you & what you do?

I have recently completed my PhD in particle physics, studying particles called neutrinos. The experiment I worked on is located deep within a mine in Japan so I had the opportunity to do shifts out there, which could also coincide with skiing in the Japanese Alps! Now I work as Science Communication Officer at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester.  It’s a really varied role and involves organising informal science events showcasing scientific research in Manchester and the northwest, organising the MOSI programme for Manchester science festival and developing science busking activities to name a few.

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?

I was always going to be an astronaut. I even won a competition to go to Space Camp. I’m still harbouring that dream to be honest…

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?

Marieke during the FameLab competition
When I was a PhD student it was the excitement of trying to solve the problems and create the right materials for the job. There were so many challenges to face, such as finding a bug in my code, growing mould in my samples, even producing posters or talks for conferences. Sometimes the challenges were overwhelming! Now in this job, I’m excited to plan a variety of science events and make contact with and meet a wide variety of scientists in Manchester and provide them with a platform to showcase their work. Ultimately my main motivation is to enhance the visitor’s day at the museum and enthuse them about science (and engineering and maths!)

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?
Don’t stress and worry so much, it’ll all work out OK in the end.

What is the best/worst thing about your job?
Best – variety, satisfaction of putting on great events with fantastic feedback from visitors. Worst – Not having enough money to do all the things I want to do! Constantly being pressured to look for funding that is being cut.

What do you enjoy other than science?
Travelling – I took my baby to Paris and Helsinki recently. I also love swimming but I do it a lot less now. I love cycling and cycle everywhere I can with a baby seat on the back.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise)?
I am inspired by ladies like Vivienne Parry – a long and varied career in science communication and broadcasting as well as managing a family life.