Fostering exchange between Nobel Laureates and young scientists

by Dr Carlo Bruno

Photo: Carlo on board a zeppelin along with Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath and meeting attendees.

I had the privilege of being selected to participate in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany, together with 39 Nobel laureates in Physics and Chemistry and outstanding young scientists from 89 countries around the world.

The aim of this event was to foster exchange among scientists of different generations, cultures and disciplines.

The meeting, which took off on 29 June, was opened by an impassionate keynote address by Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt urging the scientists in the audience to be as open as possible with their data, ideas and research, and to aim to make a difference in the world. The same theme also dominated the closing panel of the conference “How Can Science Change the World for the Better?” held a week later on Mainau Island, on Lake Constance (Germany). Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, former Secretary of Energy under US president Barak Obama, asked all scientists in the audience to consider getting involved in politics, for short time periods, to promote scientific thinking and the scientific method amongst decision-makers.

In addition to this broader discussion about the role of Science in society, the meeting had a large number of outstanding traditional lectures, as well as open discussions, panels, science breakfasts, science walks, social evenings, all with the aim of fostering communication between Nobel Laureates and young scientists. All talks were recorded and are available online.

Amongst the many excellent talks, I would suggest:

My personal highlight of this exciting week was a flight on a zeppelin, one of the only six that exist in the world, together with seven young scientists and Nobel Laureate A. Yonath. The flight was kindly offered by the German Helmholz-Zentrum Geesthacht who use the zeppelin to detect and study vortices and eddies to further out understanding of oceanography.

Inspiration and support for women in physics

Conference attendees

The Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics UK (CUWiP) aims to inspire physics students, highlight career options and provide a supportive community.

Students Sara Evers, Lucy Arditi and Storm Colloms (all year 2) attended the Conference, now in its fifth year, at the Department of Physics, Oxford University in March.  Sara tells us what the conference entailed, and how she benefitted from attending…

The first full day of the conference started with a visit to national research facility, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories (RAL). The most exciting part for me was the particle accelerator ISIS, the onsite muon and neutron source. The lab also hosts a central laser facility, a space research and engineering department and many other interesting facilities. As well as attending tours, presentations were made by several female engineers who told us about their work at RAL, how they got where they are today and about internship and graduate opportunities.

In the afternoon, we heard from Prof Alexandra Olaya-Castro from University College London about her research, inspiring career path and the challenges she faced along the way. Following that I attended a medical physics workshop. As someone who has always been interested in medicine and biology, being able to meet and talk to medical physicists and gain information about the different career options and training schemes was very insightful.

Day two started off with talks: Dr Francesca Day, who is a theoretical particle physicist at Cambridge University and a stand-up comedian gave a talk on ‘Science, Creativity and Stereotypes’, which focused on her personal story and research, and general gender and inequality issues in physics. Ms Carole Kenrick, a resident scientist working in primary schools in London, talked about getting young children invested and interested in science.

Tours of the laboratories at Oxford University were conducted in the afternoon, and I got to see a particle physics lab, where they worked on detectors for ATLAS, the particle accelerator and detector in Switzerland. I also saw a group working on producing solar cells out of biomaterials and some groups working on telescopes in the Astronomy department.

Following this was another talk: Dr Rain Irshad shared information on her career in space science, starting with her aim to become an astronaut, the many setbacks and changes in her life, and how she ended up working at RAL Space. I then attended a career panel, with six physicists who are now pursuing careers outside physics (e.g. Patent law, data science, government adviser). This showcased the many opportunities you can have with a physics degree. The day ended with an informal chat with scientists and PhD students.

The conference ended with an academic panel, and a talk from Dr Suchitra Sebastian about combining a career in physics with a life outside of work.

Attending this conference benefitted me in many different ways.  I realised there are many different career options available to those with a degree in physics, and learned how one can get into these different areas. It was very motivating to hear about all the setbacks people had to overcome, despite making it to where they are today. I now have a better understanding of what it means to do physics research both in academia and industry and what alternatives there are. On a more practical level, I learned about several internship programmes, some of which I will apply for next year, as well as information on postgraduate studies and funding, which will be very helpful in a few years’ time.

The most inspiring aspect of the conference however wasn’t the great programme, but that I got to meet so many female physicists and physics students, all very passionate about this subject. Being used to usually having a male majority in every lecture and workshop, sitting in a lecture theatre full of female physicists is quite an empowering feeling. Over the weekend, I got to meet so many great and inspiring people and made many great connections and friendships that will hopefully last for a long time. I’m very grateful to both the organisers of the conference, especially the main organiser Prof Daniela Bortoletto, and the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, who enabled us to attend the conference by covering our travel costs to Oxford.


Prizes, presentations and showcasing undergraduate student research

Some of our project winners.

One component of our undergraduate degrees is to enable students to cultivate the experimental design, project management, technical and presentation skills which are needed to work successfully in a physics-based research environment.  This is achieved primarily through the Senior Honours and MPhys Projects.

More specifically, students undertaking these projects learn to: conduct and summarise the crucial aspects of a literature review; organise and use a comprehensive log of the work completed in their project; and write a report on the pertinent aspects of the method and produce a critical discussion of the results and conclusions. MPhys students also have to present an oral summary of the aims, methods and results to their peers, and design and produce a web-based summary for a lay audience.  These students undertake their project work within one of the School’s research groups – thus working alongside current researchers and gaining a direct experience of work within a research environment.

In order to showcase student projects, the School organised its first Undergraduate Research Conference this April.  During the conference, students and staff had the opportunity to view the Senior Honours Project Posters produced by year 4 students and the MPhys Project Public Summaries produced by year 5 students.  Conference attendees heard from alumna Anna de Graaff whose talk on ‘A search for missing baryons in the cosmic web’ reflected on her undergraduate project which became a refereed journal paper, and Dr Paul Clegg who described his supervision of a student’s project which formed the basis of a published paper.

At the Conference, prizes were awarded to the students who produced outstanding project posters and public summaries.

Senior Honours Project Poster prizes:

First prize:

Gloria Hamlyn ‘Examining the gender gap in the Force Concept Inventory’

Second prize:

Jules Giroul ‘The motion of asteroid 3753 Cruithne’

Third prize:

Jack Gargan ‘Gravitational waves and their detection’

Highly Commended:

Emma Corlett ‘Advanced Photdetectors: WLS Plate Timing’

Amy Paxton ‘Search for hydrogen storage compounds un ammonium chloride at high pressures’

Hilde Metzger ‘Inharmonicity of piano strings’

MPhys Project Public Summary prizes:

First prize:

Freddie Ferguson – for a very atmospheric flipbook for children that explained the principles of dark matter detection

Second prize:

Katie Garrett – for a ‘Draw my life’ video from the perspective of a massive star on the verge of core collapse

Third prize:

Tomas Soltinsky – for a card game in the mind-bending Pokemon style that reveals how astrophysical simulations work

Highly Commended:

Ieva Cepaite – for a rap on machine learning that was informative while keeping it real

Jamie Stewart – for a children’s storybook on earthquakes and materials at high pressure

Georgia Clark – for a murder mystery at the LHC

Harry Carstairs – for an interactive outreach exhibit on ultrasound scans

Amy Teasdale – for a website that gives a feel for life as a soft matter experimentalist


Due to the success of the conference, and positive feedback received from students, the School aims to run this as an annual event.