My role as the Science Communication sandwich student has given me a chance to meet the sandwich students and discuss their time here so far. Being able to discover the breadth of work that is going on at the facility is inspiring, but even more so when you consider the work that students are doing here. This feature explores the recently changed lives of four sandwich students, their jobs and what they hope to gain from their time at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
- Laura Shafi is studying Biomedical Sciences at Newcastle University and is working within the ISIS Impact team in Public Engagement.
- Sarah Mann is a physicist from the University of Bristol working in Scintillation Detection Development for Neutrons
- Amrin Pathan from University College London is studying Molecular Biology and is working as a Biology Lab Method Developer
- Liam Panchaud is a computer scientist from the University of Manchester and is working in the Experimental Controls group
“What do you do in your job?"
LAURA: I do a range of things, from helping to deliver public engagement events, to giving tours as well as designing activities, public engagement materials and writing science highlights.
SARAH: My project at the moment is about a new type of scintillator which will hopefully produce higher rate capabilities for neutron detectors. I'm currently doing experiments in the source room, analysing data in the lab, testing which photomultiplier tubes work best with the new scintillator. I got to build my own detector which involved doing some soldering and eventually getting to see it detecting neutrons.
AMRIN: I run the fermenter to grow bacteria culture. We use a fermenter rather than a flask because we can accurately control conditions like temperature and pH; it's also much faster so we can get a higher yield. I'm also trying to optimise the growth conditions, starting from preparing the sample which comes in a small tube and then scaling that up to say, 4 litres of the sample.
LIAM: I'm part of the team that design, write and test the software that runs on the instruments in the experimental halls. As an example, I wrote a programme to control a rotating sample changer which would lower the sample into the beamline. I've also worked on code to control powerful magnets, so the work I do varies from the small to very large.
Laura Shafi seen here in Target Station 2, standing above the WISH diffractometer. Credit: STFC.
“What is the most exciting part of your job?"
LAURA: Two things, how spontaneous the job is, just doing loads of different things. Secondly, interacting with people, which I really like doing because everyone reacts to things in different ways which is interesting to see - school children get excited by the activities and tours and have said that they want to get involved in science and other people are just shocked by the scale of the facility.
SARAH: I think building something and then actually getting to see it working is really cool, so is the potential to test something I've worked with on the beamline. Also I designed a holder for my detector, gave it to someone and then a few days later they'd made it for me. It's amazing that there are people here who are happy to use their time and skills building something just for students.
AMRIN: Actually being in the lab, using new equipment and being there from start to finish. I've been able to grow and prepare the sample and following that, be a part of the next stages in the research, all the way up to seeing the results.
LIAM: I'd say it's being able to have a direct impact on the science happening right now, there's cutting edge research going on which I'm a part of. I'm distanced from the experiments, but I have an impact on making the instruments work as required by the scientists.
Sarah Mann using a neutron source to test the detector she built. Credit: STFC.
“What is it about your job that you find challenging?"
LAURA: There's lots of things going on, having lots of little things to do there's no one telling you do this do that - you need to figure it out yourself. Sometimes you might worry about things you've never tried before, but you just have to throw yourself into it anyway and you learn as you go along.
SARAH: It's different from university in that you have to figure out what you're doing and you have so much less direction. When something goes wrong, you have to figure it out from the basics. Knowing what to do next is both challenging and exciting, you've got all these options to choose from when you have everything laid out in front of you.
AMRIN: Getting used to the change from university where you might have everything you need written in the lab manuals and you don't have to do much on your own, but here you get to take charge and do things yourself. It can be quite challenging remembering how to use all the equipment as a minor mistake can have major consequences.
LIAM: It's a completely new system to me, the front end of the work I do is in Java which I'm familiar with from university, but the back end is written in Experimental Physics and Industrial Control System (EPICS), and while it's interesting to see how different components speak to each other, it can be quite challenging. If I do get stuck, I can always ask questions to the people I work with.
Liam Panchaud running code in his office. Credit: STFC.
“Why did you apply for a placement at here at ISIS?"
LAURA: I didn't want to work in a lab, I wanted to interact with people and it would be quite rewarding to inspire the younger generation to get involved with science and this is one of the few places where you can actually do that. It's also a large facility with massive impact and a lot of variation about what you can do.
SARAH: It seemed like a really good opportunity to see what physics would be like in the real world, away from the university bubble and there's cutting edge research going on here too. Being surrounded by professional scientists is pretty cool too; it's a great working environment.
AMRIN: The job fit quite well with what I've been doing at university and I was familiar with the techniques it requires, like molecular cloning, growing cultures, all that stuff. I wanted to work in a large facility, and in other companies it was difficult to find something that related so much to my course. Also, the values of STFC resonate quite well with me; it's focus and encouragement of women in STEM is very important to me.
LIAM: I was considering doing a placement in something that was based on cryptography, scientific computing or physics, and for the latter two, ISIS seemed like a really good place to do that. It's such a large facility and I wanted to something that was more than just software development.
Amrin Pathan observing a sample in the lab before testing. Credit: STFC.
“What do you hope to gain from your placement?"
LAURA: More confidence in talking in front of groups of people, I feel like whatever job you're in having that skill is really valuable. Also it would be nice to be creative and make something that's used even after I finish my year.
SARAH: I want come out with an idea if I want to take this further into a PhD. I kind of started this placement thinking I didn't like physics that much and I've already changed my mind quite a lot. I didn't really picture myself taking physics further but now I'm more open to considering it.
LIAM: Experience of working in a big team. To give some context, the largest project I worked on whilst at university compiled to perhaps a couple of hundred megabytes, but the project we're doing at the moment compiles to around 9 gigabytes. I'm also looking forward to seeing how other systems interact with each other.
“Has your attitude to work changed, do you find it much different to university?"
LAURA: I was surprised at how quickly I got into a routine. Time flies day to day when you've got tasks to get through and it's different from university as it feels like you're really busy but it's in a spread out way, whereas here you're busy for a concentrated amount of time.
SARAH: Compared to university, I actually care about the project a lot more than I thought I would. It feels like at university sometimes you're just doing things because you have to or because the lab script tells you to, but here you can see the reason behind what you're doing. My attitude is better because I'm so much more invested in what I'm doing.
AMRIN: It's very different to university, where you're mostly spoon-fed everything. However, here, you have to pay close attention to the details and be quite vigilant with your work. You've got to know what you're doing and messing up can set you back.
LIAM: Here the work flow feels more structured, in terms of completing a task, getting feedback and then improving what you've done. Everyone has an idea of what's going on, whereas at university, you may have lots of different modules based on different topics and not everything is related. Additionally, it's not just me that has an input on my work, we have meetings to discuss what we're doing and so there's more of a structure in making sure things work rather than just rushing in and attempting the task.
“At the moment do you have any specific future career aspirations?"
LAURA: I want to continue going down the public engagement route but I think I'll have a more specific idea at the end of the year.
SARAH: At the moment I don't but hopefully this placement will give me a better idea.
AMRIN: Part of the reason why I'm doing a placement is to figure out if I want to continue down this line of work. I've got ideas to get involved with forensics but if this goes well, I'll have another option to get involved in.
LIAM: Nothing specific at the moment, I'm trying to figure out the areas I want to get involved in because computer science is quite diverse. I'll see how this year goes and then decide if I want to continue working in development where we go from the bottom all the way to the top.
We look forward to the work that our sandwich students will achieve in their time here and we wish them well in all they do.
Further information about the variety of opportunities that STFC offers undergraduate students can be found by following this link.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being completed at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, please visit our Science Highlights and News pages.