Olivia was interested in space as a child, and decided before her GCSEs that she wanted to study physics at university and even do a PhD. However, when starting college, she struggled to take in all the information; “My grades dropped instantly and I had no idea why," she explains. After a tough first year, where she got UUUE in her AS-levels, she decided to re-sit, although she still found it hard.
“It was at this point that my teachers told me not to bother with physics, and that by aiming to study the subject at university I was setting myself up for failure." Luckily for us, Olivia persevered, completing her A-levels with grades CEE and being offered a place on the engineering and maths foundation year at Sheffield Hallam. She explains; “I didn't give up because I knew there was more to physics than an A-level curriculum."
It was during this year that she discovered learning had suddenly become a lot easier; “I didn't understand why I was passing everything all of a sudden!" she explains. It was only when a friend encouraged her to do a learning needs assessment, and was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia that it all began to make sense; “I just learn differently and university study allowed me to do this, and so I did well as a result. By having open book exams, I was able to focus on applying the knowledge rather than remembering equations."
After passing her foundation year, she began on the physics course. During her first year, she had lectures from Roger Eccleston, who will soon join ISIS as Director. He mentioned his involvement with STFC and this sparked her interest. She spoke to students who had previously done placements with us to find out more and get tips for her application and subsequently, her interview.
Despite this, she assumed she had completely failed her ISIS interview, as she hadn't covered a lot of the programming covered in the technical questions. However, her attitude and commitment shone through and she was offered the role: one of only four in her university year group due to COVID-19 related cancellations.
For Olivia, this meant her initial excitement wore off pretty quickly and was replaced with a mix of guilt, self-doubt and fear; “I knew my friends were so much more capable than me so why were they rejected? I was fixated on the thought that when I started I'd be thrown in at the deep end and basically left to drown like I was at college."
However, after starting, she realised quickly that this was not the case: “My fears couldn't be further from the truth. The support and encouragement I've had from my manager Steve, and everyone else I've met whilst at ISIS, has been invaluable. "
Olivia has been working in the neutronics group, investigating the effect of neutron energy on radiolysis of liquid methane. In the moderators around the ISIS targets, the methane forms a polymer due to radiation damage. She has taken work from previous research to build a code to model the moderator and feed in data from ISIS.
Although she has been working remotely most of the time, she has felt part of the team from the start; “I've never felt like a student, and never been treated as a lesser member of staff." The way of working has also suited her well; “I enjoy having a problem and then finding my own solution. As well as learning what I need for my project, I'm trying to learn as much programming as possible, as I know this is a weak area for me."
Now she has done some research during her placement, she is even keener to do a PhD, and asking lots of academics for advice about different physics PhD options, including applying for a Bell-Burnell Graduate Scholarship; “Given my experience with the way that I learn, I need to be supported by the right person and so I'd like to find a familiar academic to study with. I knew there would be a place for me in physics and, whilst it's been an uphill battle, I've finally found it."
Olivia is very keen to share her story with others who may be struggling in the same way; “If my struggle to get to this point raises awareness of the flaws and bias in the physics world lessens just one other person's struggle, or at least brings comfort knowing there's a place for everyone in physics who wants it, then it's worth it."
There were many chances during her education where she could have easily given up on her goal of persuading physics, but she wouldn't change it; “My journey has made me who I am. The past few years have shown me that life is too short not to do what you love, or to let fear control you. Your financial background, gender or learning style shouldn't stop you pursuing this. Unfortunately, these things still can have an impact, but it's up to us to be stubborn in the face of adversity and not take no for an answer.
“Failure is inevitable, but embracing it and understanding that it's a learning opportunity is the most important thing. Take chances, ask for help if you need it and if you realise you no longer love what you're doing its okay to stop. Just don't let other people be the ones making that decision for you."