Friday, 10 January 2014

The Real Deal: Hayley Smith, Accelerator Physicist

Today I'd like to introduce a woman whose job involves operating and improving the most powerful proton accelerator in the UK. Cool, huh?

I'm pretty excited to introduce another woman in my very own field (accelerator physics), who arrived here through a rather different route to me. Hayley went through the STFC graduate training scheme (which means straight out of university, rather than doing a PhD) which proves that you don't always need to go down the PhD route to do excellent science for a career.

She's sporty, curious about everything, plays jazz trumpet and once wanted to be an astronaut but seems to have settled for a spot of astrophotography. Whew, what a range of interests! Without further ado, meet Hayley Smith...

Hayley Smith, Photo credit: STFC, 2013
What do you do and give 3 words that describe how you got there?

I work at ISIS as an accelerator physicist*.

Three words: Luck. Curiosity. Fun.

As an accelerator physicist at ISIS my work is mainly split into two categories, operations and development. In both cases the work involves trying to better understand how the accelerator works. 

Operationally this means working to achieve a more stable, high intensity, proton beam efficiently accelerated onto the target. This also involves creating new beam control tools, performing practical beam experiments and comparing the results of these with those from computer simulations. 

I particularly enjoy the time spent in the ISIS Main Control Room setting up the beam for the neutron users. On the development side I am involved in projects to model and simulate various beam processes to help plan for, and design, potential future accelerators or upgrades.

It is just plain lucky that I got the job. If I wasn’t curious about the world, physics in general, accelerators and so on then I would never have even applied. I had a great time at University and without that I wouldn’t be able to have this job.

(While she's busy writing this, maybe I can sneak in and tinker with the accelerator...? What, not even for a minute??)

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?
I honestly had no idea, and considered many different options!

I suppose deep down I always wanted to be an astronaut as space and international space programs have always fascinated me. From the age of 13-18 I was a member of my local Sea Cadet Corps and from this experience I was keen to join the Royal Navy. I also considered being a Police Officer. When I was doing my A-Levels I was introduced to the various forms of engineering and both civil and sports engineering looked very interesting to me.

Not once did accelerator physicist cross my mind, although thinking back I did enjoy the self-study module on accelerators during my A-Level physics course.

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?
ISIS as a facility is allowing scientists to do great stuff with advancing certain technologies and pushing the scientific boundaries. Working in the background, on the accelerator side of things, is just as motivating for me as working on the forefront of these discoveries. Especially when working in the Main Control Room the concept of providing a service is important in my mind. 
And also I really enjoy working in the group here, the people are great and that makes for a very enjoyable working environment.

What is the one thing you’d love to achieve in your research?
The research we conduct in the group mainly focuses on development work for upgrades to ISIS or potential accelerators of the future. If some of the research we do were to lead to a new accelerator upgrade, or facility, in the future that would be fantastic. Any upgrade to ISIS would enhance the opportunities for neutron users, and also we would have the ability to commission a new accelerator based on the research and designs of the group.

What is the best/worst thing about your job?
I particularly enjoy working in the Main Control Room – “hands-on” with the accelerator, setting up the proton beam is a good challenge and different every time.  I also really enjoy creating new tools to use in separate beam experiments – taking measurements, analysing the results, making changes to the machine and ultimately improving the efficiency of the machine is really motivating.  

Also, since I have been working at ISIS I have had the opportunity to travel to attend many training courses, conferences and collaboration meetings.  These have all been amazing chances that I could never have dreamt of happening when I was at school or even university…

Currently I find the most frustrating part of my job to be creating computer simulations and models.  As stated above, I much prefer the operational and experimental aspects to my job – but that’s only because my programming ability is still developing. As I get more proficient I am finding I am enjoying the modelling aspects more and more, and I can certainly see how they are very powerful.  But for now they are still frustrating at times!

What do you enjoy other than science?

Since the age of six I have played football and have been lucky enough to continue all through school, university and now even work where I help to organise a women’s football team. We train weekly and play in the work lunchtime league. I enjoy playing, and watching, all sports. Besides football I particularly enjoy basketball, rounders, squash, tennis and golf.  

Despite having minimal musical ability (that all went to my brother I really enjoy (attempting) to play the trumpet with a local jazz band.

With my first ISIS pay packet I bought myself a 6” Cassegrain reflecting telescope.  Astronomy has been an interest of mine since I was at school, and I have been lucky to be a member of local amateur astronomy groups wherever I have lived.  Most recently I invested in a DSLR camera and have been experimenting with some astro-photography.

What would be your ideal holiday?
Skiing with a big group of friends.

In my first year at work at ISIS a group of recent graduates suggested a skiing trip. I had never been skiing before, but had always thought that it looked great.  We went as a big group and had an absolutely amazing week – and this has been repeated for the past three years, and hopefully will continue to do so!!!

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise)?
This may well sound cheesy, but for me it really is true.  The greatest inspiration would be my family.  I am lucky to be part of a big family and have been supported by, and been able to learn from all the generations.  We get together regularly and it’s always a lot of fun.  

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?
Play more football, but look after your knees better.
Work harder to actually understand things properly - don’t just learn things to pass exams.

*  ISIS is a world centre for scientific research using neutrons and muons. You can find lots of explanations on the ISIS website,, but Hayley has kindly summarised for us: 

Scientists from all over the world come to visit ISIS to use the sub-atomic particles, neutrons, which are produced using a particle accelerator. Other sub-atomic particles, protons, are accelerated to 84% the speed of light. Once at this speed the protons are then smashed into a brick-sized tungsten target which releases neutrons from the target material. By detecting how neutrons pass through materials the scientists are able to work out the atomic structure of the material. Understanding materials on the atomic scale is really important to the world around us:
  • it allows the scientists to work out what is going on in fast biological processes such as pharmaceutical drug delivery 
  • it enables scientists and engineers to develop new materials and methods that could be used for storing hydrogen so it can be used as an alternative fuel source 
  • it helps scientists understand the magnetic tendencies of materials leading to the advancement of smaller and higher density microchips
  • and many more applications…   

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