Today I gave a talk at a University of Surrey Open Day about my MPhys research year and what I’ve learned from it. Several months on, I think it’s interesting to see how my thoughts on it have evolved – bear in mind that for such a talk one tends to focus on the positive aspects. Here, I’m going to rewrite the talk I gave. I have to say that I had a lot of fun doing this – I’m genuinely happy that I went on MPhys and I hope that my enthusiasm (fuelled by coffee) came across in the 10000-words-per-minute patter that I tend to have when presenting. I tried to get across all of the things I truly love about MPhys and research in general. Note that I’m not going to repeat any of the jokes for which Jim Al-Khalili was the butt (that wouldn’t be fair).
This first slide is a little boring, but then all of them are kinda boring without my talking so pay attention! This was the lab which I worked in on placement at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), and I tended to sit in the left corner there staring at a computer screen doing data analysis and waiting for results. This is boring, but then one of the important things about research is the long periods of tedium which are interspersed with excitement. Of course, this is one of the many things that you don’t learn at University – you need a lot of experience to really appreciate the difference between “how science works” (what you can be taught) and “how to make science work” (what they hope that you will learn). Alternatively, think of it as the difference between “how science works” and “how to work in science” – you can be taught the former, but the latter is all down to experience.
You learn a lot of other useful things on placement too – working on your own and un-instructed is one of the most important things you learn. I spent a large part of my time there working unsupervised and without specific direction. That’s also related to learning good experimental design. Don’t laugh – I know some people will be naively thinking “oh that’s easy, you just have to know what you want to look for and then find it” – it’s always more complicated than that, and good experimental design is a real skill that’s hard to master. In addition, you learn how to “ask questions” about your research – i.e. is it up to the standards which other people will expect from you? These are all great experiences to have had and to be able to talk about no matter what you do later.
This slide is really to demonstrate that you learn lots of interesting things on placement that you don’t expect to. This is something I programmed myself from scratch while I was there which was working towards an experiment that nobody at RAL had managed to do before. This program was all about controlling a piece of equipment and getting lots of useful data out of it! For this, I had to learn a new programming language called LabVIEW which I really enjoyed. That’s not something that’s taught by the University and it’s not really expected for you to know, but it’s great that you get to learn lots of new things like this that you really can’t anticipate.
Again here we have a somewhat boring/messy slide! This was one of those moments I had where I was sitting in the lab and a big idea struck me on how to deal with something – I was looking at some data or something and I was wondering how to correct for an anomaly. But I had no paper! So I grabbed a board pen and scrawled on the window behind me, that was a lot of fun. This developed into a whole theory, but really the point in this slide is to show you that real Physics is.. well it’s messy. You read a popular Physics book and all the ideas are presented clearly and coherently, so they look almost obvious (or at least logical)! This is a long way from the truth, as you can hopefully see here.
This is my final slide and really I wanted to show this because this is what the scrawl I showed you developed into. You can see three “established” models (bottom three curves) and the model I invented. What I really want to get across here is the amazing feeling of achievement that you get when you write something down and you think “hey, nobody else has really realised the importance of this before!” This was probably one of the best moments of my life, in fact. Sure, that might sound sad, but I’m passionate about what I do.
That, I think, is one of the best motivations for doing any of this – the real thrill of real research is an amazing thing to do. In addition, it’s a great way to really start your career – this model for me has made it into a publication which was submitted for peer review. Now I think that this is great and unique and important, but I’ll soon see if anyone else thinks so! This isn’t exactly unusual either – other people in my cohort also are getting publications out of their work too. I think that’s basically everything I had to say, and I just want to reiterate that if there’s one reason to go to Surrey, it’s absolutely for the MPhys course. It’s fantastic!