A summer in the lab, from home
27 Oct 2020
- Rosie de Laune



Despite COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, ISIS still took on summer placement students in 2020. This included Ellie Dempsey, who spent 12 weeks working in the Materials Characterisation Laboratory.

Ellie Dempsey profile

​​​Ellie Dempsey ​


For Ellie, 2020 was the summer between the fourth and fifth year of her chemical physics degree at the University of Edinburgh. “Early in the year I had an email from one of my lecturers about the STFC summer placement scheme. I thought the one in the MCL looked interesting and really relevant to my studies," she says.

“When I applied for the placement, it would have been based in the lab," she explains; “but I had my interview over Zoom and when I started everyone was still working remotely. It was really good that it was able to go ahead given the circumstances."

Ellie's placement used measurements on the X-ray diffractometers in the lab to develop instrumental parameters needed for future data analysis using a piece of software called GSAS. Thanks to the ability to connect to the lab computers remotely, she was able to run the experiments herself once the samples had been loaded by Daniel, the lab's X-ray technician.

“I was able to control the instruments and collect data as if I was in the lab. It worked well having the set up like this and, once I had been taught how to use it, it was very easy." She explains; “at the start I did lots of online tutorials and had a lot of long Zoom meetings with Daniel and my supervisor Gavin. The ability to share screens meant we could work through things together."

Gavin Stenning, who managed Ellie during her placement adds; “Given that her entire project was remote, from interview through data collection and report writing to presentations within the group about her work, Ellie settled in very well and quickly given the circumstances and was a member of the team as any full time member of staff."

As well as keeping in touch regularly to talk about her work, the wider ISIS Support Lab group maintained informal meetings during remote working, and as some began to go back into the lab more regularly. They also gave her a video tour of the labs so she could see what it was like.

“As everyone else was working remotely too I didn't feel isolated. The regular meetings, meant that we could all keep in touch." She adds; “there were also new industrial placement students who started just after me, so we were all able to go through the same processes together."

The summer placement has been an ideal preparation for Ellie's masters project, which she is about to begin in Edinburgh with Dr James Cumby. She explains; “I learnt lots of relevant skills that will be really useful. It's the first time I independently planned and managed a project, and this has made me think more about the possibility of doing a PhD."

6H6G0298.jpgAs well as the research skills, Ellie has gained experience in report writing and presentation skills; “Learning to talk about my work and explain it to others has been really useful, and by writing my report as I went along I was able to spot extra experiments that I needed to do."

Now the twelve weeks of her placement have finished, w​hat's her advice to others? “Don't be afraid to ask for help. Everyone was very friendly and helpful if I did need anything, but initially I felt reluctant to disturb them. By the end I realised how worthwhile it was when I did!"

Gavin (pictured, left) adds; “During her time with ISIS and within the Materials Characterisation Laboratory team, Ellie performed some key work in the lab providing useful analysis tools for the data processing of users X-ray data. With Zoom, Teams and other platforms, the managing of Ellie's placement was as simple as if she were in the next room on-site, and she was a real asset to the MCL team."

Contact: de Laune, Rosie (STFC,RAL,ISIS)