Grange & St Josephs Academy, Kilmarnock, Scotland, University of Oxford, Univsity College London
Master of Physics
Development Officer for Thames Valley Harriers(TVH)
I juggle between finishing off PhD, working as a Brilliant Club tutor, Lab demonstrator and Development officer for TVH
University College London
Favourite thing to do in science Visiting schools to talk about science. Can be quite terrifying(!!). But the process of designing slides, been creative with your content and making people interested and passionate about science is extremely rewarding. Also, presenting talks(be it to the public or fellow researchers at a conference) is a very good way as a researcher to be ‘forced’ to summarize your work-ie ‘see the wood for the trees’-not always easy! I also thoroughly enjoy helping students in laboratories due to the inevitable ‘interesting results’ that often appear and trying to work to solve them. As someone who was lucky enough to get into Oxford to study physics I think its vitally important that all academics in Universities spend time encouraging the next generation of scientists-the country needs you!
I help astronomers work out what molecules are in other planets-ie is there alien life out there?
So….where do I start?!
I am part of a research group called ExoMol which is based at University College London in the department of physics & astronomy which has around 20 members including summer students, Masters students, Postdocs, Research Associates and, sitting at the top of the academic pyramid, Professors.
Each of us works on a molecule or two. Our aim is to produce a “linelist” for our molecules-what we mean by this is a list(a rather long list I might add, can be about 10 billion in the case of methane..) of wavelengths and intensities which astronomers can use to identify different molecules in outer space. Each moledule has a different list! Think of it like barcodes. Each of the “lines”(ie wavelength with an intensity) corresponds to a transition in the molecule-ie when a molecule changes state, due to conservation of energy, a wavelength of light at a specific(think 4 decimal places accuracy) is given off, emitted
Before I start talking quantum chemistry-the molecules I’m working on are Chromium Hydride(CrH) and Manganese Hydride(MnH). I’ve also become friendly with Beryllium, Magnesium & Calcium Hydride as these are smaller(and hence a little simpler) which helped me get my head around The Big Two, CrH & MnH whom I nickname ‘Naughty & Nice’ respectively. Basically the extra electron in MnH makes life a lot more stable….
Now….what do I mean by a state of a molecule?
In a single atom, electrons are whizzing around the nucleus. When the electrons are arranged a certain way(“configuration”) that is what we call a state of the atom. For a molecule as well as these electronic configurations, to fully describe its state we need to also specify a) how fast it is vibrating(and what modes) and b) how fast it is rotating. When a molecule changes state to one of a lower energy(ie starts spinning slower, starts vibrating in a different way or the electrons move around) then, there will be a release in energy ie wavelength of light!
So how do we produce a linelist?
By solving Schrodingers equation! Yes Schrodinger has a very famous cat. When we start solving Schordingers equation for a particular molecule it is literally like opening up a box with a cat in it-we don’t know how friendly, easy-going or downright obtuse the molecule will be! They can be very deceptive. Like all cats, they all have their quirks-when you think you’ve ‘got them’ under control, you get some strange result which can’t be explained by logic.
So how do we solve Schroedinger equation? Computers. Big Computers. Big Rooms full of Big Computers. We use various quantum chemistry packages where people have made a lot of clever approximations which will use various procedures to effectively number crunch.
In physics a two body problem can be solved exactly-any more than two bodies and you need to start using approximations! Such as the Born-Oppenheimer approximation which uses the fact that the mass of an electron is around 10^-4 the mass of the proton. This thus allows us to split the Schroedinger equation into an equation for the motion of the wee electrons flying around and a second equation for the motion of the heavier nuclei(protons and neutrons) which are very slugglish in comparison(ie the vibrational & rotational motion of the molecule).
After we have produced a linelist we always ‘fit’ ie refine to any experimental data available-it acts a as a very good sanity check!
So now you might wonder why astronomers can’t just use experimental data to identify molecules in outer space? The reason is, as the temperature increases molecules get more energetic, more excited. The electrons reach higher energy levels & the nuclei vibrate and rotate faster. Hence molecules ventures into new states which it will transition between-ie more lines! We can’t measure the spectrum(ie list of wavelength lines with intensities) in the lab due to safety concerns-astronomers want to know what the spectrum ie linelist of molecules of different molecules will be at temperatures approaching 5000 K.
So instead of heating up experimental labs to 5000K we instead heat up server rooms with Big Computers doing theoretical calculations(when Big Computers are running they give off lots of heat! But not as hot as 5000K….the server room does have its own air conditioning system to stop the computers overheating).
On a final note, feel free to ask me how its possible to set off remotely from the other side of the world Sonic Booms in the server room.
My Typical Day
Cycle to UCL, work in office, cycle home(this sounds boring but trust me it is more interesting so read on!)
I work in an office which is situated in the library(UCL has a pressing shortage of space so us theory dudes get housed in the library away from all the experimental labs in the actual physics department….).
Our office has 5 residents-myself, fellow PhD student, post docs Lorenzo & Andrei and my supervisor, Dr Sergey Yurchenko aka The Trove Monster…………..eh no I mean the Trove Master (https://twitter.com/trovemaster). Trove is the name of the program he has co-built and works on. Think hardcore maths…all pretty epic stuff.
The 5 ‘other residents’ in the office are 5 computers which each have their own name-“Burroughs”, “Sickboy”, “Renton”, “Marvin”, “Eddie”. It gets very hot. Even in winter when the heating is on full blast we often actually have to open windows and use fans…..
So my typical day in the office can consist of any of the following in about possible orders. Or to use the more scientific phrase ‘combinations & permutations’.
1. Browsing the “archive” for new papers released in the field of Exoplanets-check out http://arxiv.org/archive/astro-ph
Anyone can access this resource and read about the latest discoveries. Yahoo for open source publishing!
2. Searching for scientific papers on the molecules I’m working on, reading through & summarizing this literature, extracting relevant figures and comparing my results to this to see if we agree (or not!)
3. Doing small ‘test’ calculations-this usually involved a lot of debugging! Then after copying files to the Big Computers in the server room to run the full-scale calculations. Very often I will set off small test calculations around mid afternoon, then go home then later in evening once they have finished log in to see the results.
Working at home! Yes it is quite possible-the beauty of the computing system in the department(and many departments) is that it is possible to ‘log in’ remotely and thus do work in any location provided you have a decent(ish) internet connection. I have friends who travel the world whilst doing their PhDs as it can becheaper than living in London…..
One point to make is office is very rarely fully occupied-we all work ‘funny hours’-it is one virtue of academia is that you are largely free to choose which hours you work-provided you get the work done! Nocturnal working hours is surprisingly not that uncommon……(Postdocs & Professors I’m looking at yoooouuuu). Also weekend working does happen quite often-research goes on at all hours not just Mon-Fri 9-5. And some nights ‘work-off’s happen where two people in the office are ‘in the zone, on a roll’ getting results done and end up not leaving until midnight. Other days, nothing seems to work-that’s when its best to head home(or go to the pub and talk to someone who may have ideas) and try again the next day.
4. Once these calculations have finished then copy the output files back to my computer. Yes PhD involves a fair bit of moving files around the computing system in order to a) run calculations b) have them ‘backed up’. We’re talking Terabytes of data here!
5. Analyse the results of these calculations. This can involve me writing scripts that ‘grep out’ all the numbers I want from an output file and then plot them to produce some nice pretty colour-coded graphs.
6. Plan further calculations. Go back to step 3 and repeat steps 3 to 6.
7. Meeting supervisor. Discussing latest results, deciding what to do(or not do) next.
8. Checking email, replying, putting event(such as IASGMOOH) into diary
9. Backing up work. Get into the habbit! The Physics computing system automatically does this if you store files in certain places. But always best to keep your own.
9. Did I mention writing up my PhD?! 😀 For anyone that ever embarks on a project, I strongly advice you to write up as you go along!! At present I am reading through textbooks on molecular spectroscopy and writing my theory chapter explaining(in my own words, plagiarism=don’t do it….) the relevant theory involved in my PhD.
Of course in the middle I have lunch, have some breaks for hot chocolate(with double cream and marshmallows, of course), chatting to fellow PhD students. Also chatting to undergraduates who visit the office to see Sergey. And also library users who are lost and looking for a department!
On a Wednesday our research group have our weekly ExoMol Coffee-yes think (highly calorific) biscuits, donuts, tea, coffee, fruit juice, cake, ice cream where we all get together and discuss(amongst other things) the latest bureaucracy imposed by our grant providers(and more importantly how to get around it)*. Each of us follow a scientific journal and will report any published scientific papers from the last week that are of interest to the group.
Or alternatively any new scientific stories that are of interest such as the IgNoble prizes and the related website: http://www.improbable.com/ (check it out, its good). Then after it will be someone’s turn to speak for 20 minutes on their research-there are 20 of us in the group so every few months. The conversations are very light hearted(aka not scientific grillings) and is a very good way for everyone to ask questions and share ideas-particularly if people are coming up against similar problems in their research.
Wednesday evenings I travel to Mill Hill Observatory in North London where I do demonstrating for the “certificate in astronomy course” which ICL offers to members of the public who would like to study astronomy for interest. Mixture of helping with computing problems, supervising telescope usage, chatting about my research, teaching new concepts.
Thursday & Fridays we often have seminars given by visiting academics or fellow students in the physics department.
So yes in summary, no day in research is the same!
*Our group has at random been chosen to be audited by accountants to make the research money is getting put to good use. Think lots of rules and regulations. Ah the joys…..
What I'd do with the money
Either visit schools in deprived areas or option 2) Set up a scheme for school students where they can ‘adopt’ a molecule and do some original research on it
If I was to be lucky enough to win the prize money I would use it to go visit schools in deprived areas and talk to them about going to university and encouraging more girls to continue studying th STEM subjects into A level and beyond. Its a cause very close to my heart as I attended a state school in Scotland and then went onto Oxford-I had to study physics at another school! So I know the “barriers” that are in place in young people been able to reach their full potential.
Option 2: Students do some research!
Project idea-students ‘adopt a molecule’
As part of my PhD my task is to create linelists(list of transitional energies between energy states with associated intensities in molecules) for diatomic metal hydrides-I do this by solving the Schrodinger equation using quantum chemistry packages to create ‘ab initio’ data (step 1). With this data I then run a programme called DUO to create a linelist(step 2) and then finally analyse the spectra simulated using these linelists(step 3).
For the diatomic molecules of Beryylium Hydride(BeH), Magnesium Hydride(MgH) & Calcium Hydride(CaH) I have completed step 1-the students can now do steps 2 & 3 thus helping me with my research!
The students would firstly do some research to find out which stable isotopes of the atoms Hydrogen(H), Berrylium(Be), Magnesium(Mg) and Calcium(Ca) exist. In total there are 20 possible stable isotopologues for BeH, MgH & CaH-the students will adopt 2 or 3 each.
Using my data from step 1, the students will adapt a DUO input file by changing the nuclear masses for each of their isotopologues respectively. They will then set off running these input files on the UCL clusters via internet connection on my laptop thus creating linelists(step 2 complete).
Using their calculated linelists (several days to calculate), for each isotopologues they will then simulate and plot spectra(step 3) for various input parameters which they can change.
The students will then share their spectra and thus investigate if different isotopologues have spectra which can be distinguished(eg BeH, BeD). This is an important result as by tracking tracking different isotopes of elements astronomers can place constraints on formation of exoplanets and stars.
Hence in summary, students can do some real science research!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Rebellious. Opinionated. OTT.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Visited Budapest for a conference-conference was in a Spa hotel! And I met this very friendly camel [myimage1 centre]
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Kirsty McCabe-weather forecaster who went to my school!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Me? Mischief?! Never….!
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
either a science teacher or work in a development type role for a science society setting up conferences, events for schools and working with Universities to encouage more students to apply to pursue science
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
Chicken curry. The spicier the better.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I compete in steeplechase on the track-yes thats 23 barriers(including 5 water jumps) to clear over 5 laps of the track.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Teach physics, help more students gain a place at prestigious universities and (very long term) help shake up the education system in UK so its governed by teachers ie people in the know! (instead of the latest loony ideas of politicans & OFSTED),
Tell us a joke.
The ExoMol project at UCL gives each student A molecule to work on. Yes 1(one…) molecule for 3 years. You see UCL is very generous like that.