I’m a real Physicist! I’m reading and understanding academic papers, designing and conducting my own experiments, using technical terms to communicate my work with my supervisor and eventually will be writing a dissertation and presenting my results to other academics.
I know what you’re thinking: “But she’s only an undergraduate! How can she call herself a ‘real Physicist?’”!.
Well about 30 emails, 10 meetings and about 50 hours of work ago, I was just an undergraduate.
I went to lectures, learnt facts, spent hours practising methods and derivations. But other than fuelling my personal education I wasn’t doing much.
But, as I reached third year, I was given the opportunity to work on a project, work closely with an academic and produce real and important results.
We are given a list of the available academics and the projects they offer and then apply with our top choices in order of preference. We are then allocated one based on grades and interest, amongst other things.
There’s a huge range of projects: some of us are doing practical experiments, some are working through theoretical calculations and others are programming computer models to test theories.
Some people find choosing their project quite a difficult task but for me it was easy. I knew I wanted to do something from the Condensed Matter department and the most interesting project was being run by my favourite lecturer! I was really hoping I would be given my first choice, and thankfully, after a few pushy emails I got it.
My project is formally on “Pair distribution function analysis of the photoexcited metastable states of SNP”, but in simpler terms I’m looking into the ways light can affect the atomic structure of some compounds.
At first, I had no idea what I was doing. For example, in our first meeting my project supervisor kept talking about ‘using PDFs’ (meaning pair distribution functions), but I thought he was talking about the document type and got very confused!
It’s an experimental project, so I’ve been busy in the lab building an LED circuit, crushing up crystals into powder, diluting this into solutions and performing various tests on them. It’s pretty exciting stuff, especially because this experiment has never been done before.
My favourite moment so far was building the LED circuit; I hadn’t worked with circuits and breadboards for quite a while so didn’t have much confidence even though it was a reasonably simple task, but I managed to get it working first time!
I write everything down in my project book: a summary of our meetings, any calculations, notes on papers I’ve read, graph sketches, etc. This means that when I come to write my dissertation I’ll have a complete and organised record of what I’ve done.
I’ve found the project quite overwhelming at times because I’m constantly aware of how much content there is to get through. However, it’s helped me to break up the project into smaller, more achievable goals and just focus on one thing at a time.
This week I gave a short presentation to my tutorial group on my progress thus far as practice for the examined presentation at the end of the year. As I was compiling it, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I have learnt in such a short space of time!
Up until I actually started the project, I never thought I’d be able to do something like this, but here I am! A real Physicist!
It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of mistakes, frustration and misunderstandings but it’s worth it for the moments when I can flick back through my project book and realise how much I’ve accomplished.
I’m part of something much bigger than this project and my degree; I’m part of the universal thirst for knowledge and I will be able to add my results to the world’s ongoing project book and put my name after them.