Blog posts

Bringing physics to life: new first-year labs, a student experience

Imperial undergraduates, Anubha Bal and Warren Smith, recently took a little time out from their studies to star in a short video, joining staff members to share thoughts on the new first year labs in the Department of Physics.

In this post, they reflect in more detail on how the new facilities have impacted their learning and experience of experimental physics, and also their career aspirations.

By Anubha Bal and Warren Smith

This past year, we and the rest of our cohort of first-year physicists had the fortune to be the first students to experience the newly refurbished labs in Blackett. Here, we share our experience of this and how it has shaped us and our perspective on experimental physics.

Immeasurably useful

Labs are a crucial part of learning physics as an undergraduate. Aside from learning the practical skills directly required for a career in experimental physics, lab sessions provide the opportunity to develop several key skills that can be transferred to any workplace.

Planning our own experiments, for example, teaches us both problem solving from figuring out how to attain the goals set in the lab manuals, and also independent time-management, as we need to design the most efficient method in order to be able to take adequate measurements to obtain accurate results within the limited time. Additionally, the analysis of the data from experiments provided the chance to apply computing techniques learnt from the computing course in a practical setting. For many of us, this was our first time coding, and so this activity was immeasurably useful in developing vital coding skills for our degree; even for those who had coded before, this was an opportunity to hone their efficiency.

Team spirit

One essential skill that lab sessions nurture is teamwork and collaboration. Being in small groups of two meant that, while there was space to grow independently, both people had to participate and work efficiently together if the experiment was to be completed to an acceptable standard in the allotted time. This demanded good communication skills within a group. However, having three other groups in your vicinity conducting the same experiment, with only a limited number of demonstrators to help, encourages communication between groups to solve more challenging problems collectively, and, perhaps more importantly, to compare results; these are invaluable skills not only in a research setting, but in any field of work.

Bringing physics to life

Furthermore, the lab sessions are a very effective way to supplement the theoretical part of the course. Not only do they necessitate the application of the mathematics taught in the course to formulate the theoretical models underlying the experiments and their analysis, they also enliven the content that we have learnt, and even include content beyond the scope of the course. This encourages wider reading in order to fully understand the experiment; it both aids in the development of independent learning, but also makes the course significantly more engaging.

Actively engaging by design

It is clear that the new labs were designed with these targeted skills in mind. Firstly, they’re very well-equipped, with each group having access to their own oscilloscope, optical workbench, laser, lenses, microphones and cameras, computers and more, as required for each experiment. This means that we are not simply passively learning through watching demonstrations; we are actively engaging with the physics.

Furthermore, the quality of the equipment facilitates more accurate results than we could ever obtain at school, giving a taster of being a real physicist, and the opportunity for more ambitious and memorable experiments. The diffraction experiment, for example, involved us using the laser beam with a lens and diffraction grating set-up to produce diffraction patterns for various slits. This tied in perfectly with the Fourier Analysis and Fourier Optics theoretical courses, and it was very satisfying to finally have equipment precise enough to produce results that matched the theoretical predictions almost perfectly.

Even when it came to the more complicated requirements of the Summer Projects at the end of the year, which were open-ended group projects in which we could design virtually any experiment that we could do within the time and money constraints, the labs were able to provide almost every piece of equipment that we needed. Between our two groups, we used 3-D printers, laser cutters, scroll saws, time gates, magnets, construction materials, computer simulation software – the lab or the university provided all of them. Additionally, the lab technicians are highly skilled and friendly, helping with the more difficult construction and engineering challenges during the Summer Project, as well as offering advice on how to set up the experiment to those that asked for it.

Spatially, the labs are designed to foster collaboration and productivity. The wide, open, main walkways allow easy passage between groups for collaboration, or for a demonstrator to come to help. On the contrary, the actual work benches are fitted with shelf-space above the tables, which means that when sitting down, it is secluded enough that you can work independently and without visual distraction. This combination allows for a more productive and enjoyable environment.

Learning what it takes to be  an experimental physicist

Overall, the labs this year not only served as one of the most enjoyable aspects of the course, they have provided us with the freedom and agency to design and carry out our own experiments in a more professional environment than previously experienced by most. Having overcome the numerous challenges, from correctly handling a lab book and writing lab reports to trying to get the summer projects to physically work, we have come to better understand what it would take to be an experimental physicist, and I am sure that many peoples’ career trajectories may have slightly veered in this direction after our first experience of proper labs. However, even if not, we have all grown individually as a result of these sessions, and have gained a greater confidence that we can bring into the labs next year.

Find out more

Find out more about undergraduate study in the Department of Physics.

The bigger picture: collaboration can bring research to life

Dr Adam SykulskiDr Adam Sykulski is a Senior Lecturer in the Statistics section of Imperial’s Department of Mathematics. He recently attended an Environment and Sustainability theme event at Silwood Park, organised as part of Silwood’s 75th Anniversary celebrations.

In this post, Dr Sykulski reflects on why he attended the event, what he took away – valuable information about funding strategies, grant applications and potential collaborators – and reasons why researchers at all career stages should engage.

By Dr Adam Sykulski

My research is in mathematical statistics with a focus on data that are spatiotemporal – in other words, data that are collected at multiple instances over space and time and are in some way connected. Such mathematical challenges, while interesting in their own right, truly come to life when they find an application domain to work closely with. In my view, there isn’t a more natural domain for this than the environmental sciences! As I’ve aimed towards such a collaboration to help build the impact and usefulness of my research, over the years I’ve been drawn to working with oceanographers.

Of course, the statistical challenges in oceanography – modelling plastic pollution, oil spills and global warming, for example – are pressing and important. What really drew me in as a statistician, however, were the fascinating physical structures that underpin oceanographic data, but are in reality contaminated by observational noise and uncertainty, thus requiring a cross-disciplinary approach to resolve the scientific challenge. (more…)

Valuing biodiversity’s future in a changing world 

75th anniversary - Silwood ParkOn 21 July 2022 the Silwood Park campus at Imperial College London will welcome speakers and delegates from Imperial, University College London, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and UK Parliament to debate a critically important topic: the future of biodiversity.

In this post Science Communication Master’s student, Sascha Pare, examines why it’s so important for scientists and policymakers to have frank and honest discussions. She also considers the devastating consequences on the horizon if we lose sight of biodiversity commitments for short-term economic gains.

By Sascha Pare

The future of biodiversity on Earth is uncertain. Without joint and systemic action to halt the loss of species and habitats, scientists have warned of a possible sixth mass extinction with devastating consequences for humankind. In the race to mitigate the interlinked effects of biodiversity loss and climate change before it is too late, scientists and policymakers are coming together to discuss long-term solutions. (more…)

Make it meaningful: RCSU’s Science Challenge 2022

Every year the Royal College of Science Union‘s (RCSU) international science communication competition, the Science Challenge, welcomes entrants from schools across the globe. This year’s competition focused on climate change, with questions set by Professor Lord Robert Winston, Professor Kathy Sykes, Professor Richard Templer and Dr Paulo Ceppi.

In this post RCSU Vice President Operations, Trinity Stenhouse, reflects on what led her to the VPO position as a first year undergraduate. why the Science Challenge has been designed to focus on sci comm for non-specialist audiences, and the importance of making science meaningful.

You can also find out more about this year’s winning entries! (more…)

A free postdoc and publication opportunities… interested?

Dr Viraj Perera
Dr Viraj Perera

Dr Viraj Perera is Director of Industry Partnerships and Commercialisation in the Faculty of Natural Sciences. In this post he highlights the reasons why the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) programme, run by Innovate UK, is such a valuable opportunity for collaboration and funding, detailing how FoNS academics can learn more about the scheme and its benefits. 

By Viraj Perera

Championing translational research

Innovate UK is the nation’s innovation agency and is a part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Its approved budget for 2021-22 is £667 million, which is greater than the budgets approved for BBSRC, AHRC and ESRC funding combined. This clearly indicates a major thrust towards championing translational research in solving real-world problems in industry settings. (more…)

Through the eyes of a STEM student writer: Imperial Bioscience Review

The Imperial Bioscience Review (IBR) is a student-led project, publishing articles on emergent and established fields of bioscience. The team aims to remove barriers to science by providing accurate, up-to-date, unbiased and inclusive articles that are free-to-access.

Life Sciences undergraduate student, Andres Hernandez Maduro, is a contributor. In this post he shares insights into IBR’s editorial and publishing process, and why it’s such a rewarding role alongside his curricular studies.

By Andres Hernandez Maduro

A collage of three of the Imperial Bioscience Review magazine covers

Sci comm and collaboration

Imperial Bioscience Review (IBR) published pieces are short, evidence-based summaries of topics that interest student contributors – and these articles are made freely available online. Since its inception just over a year ago, IBR has extended its base to over 100 writers across several undergraduate and postgraduate courses. With articles published online on a weekly basis, the collection of work has quickly grown to over 400 review pieces. In addition, IBR produces a termly magazine to showcase our writers’ work to the college community, kindly supported by the Department of Life Sciences. (more…)

Animation: Target Malaria’s approach to Stakeholder Engagement Activities

In this post, Naima Sykes, Global Stakeholder Engagement Manager for Target Malaria, shares an animation video that the Target Malaria team developed, detailing their approach to stakeholder engagement activities. She also shares insights on how the consortium engages meaningfully with their varied stakeholders, and why this is so essential for their research.

By Naima Sykes

Target Malaria is a not-for-profit research consortium that aims to develop and share new, cost-effective and sustainable genetic technologies to modify mosquitoes and lower malaria transmission. By reducing the population of malaria mosquitoes, we aim to bring down the transmission of the disease, allowing people in affected areas to live without the burden of malaria and freeing up resources currently used to combat the disease. (more…)

Beauty of a more colourful world: CEP X Dyson X ICBS PhD Flash Mob #1

In December 2021 PhD students from Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP), Dyson School of Design Engineering (Dyson) and Business School (ICBS), organised an event in response to COP26 and the environmental crisis.

‘Beauty of a More Colourful World’ brought together twelve postgraduate research students from six different departments to showcase how their research ties into addressing environmental problems. In this blog post one of the organisers, Yurong Yu, reflects on the experience.

Author: Yurong Yu | Photo credits: Yunwan Tao.

My fellow co-organiser, Neel Le Penru, and I initiated this event because we realised that the complexity of environmental problems requires interdisciplinary collaboration, so opportunities for interdepartmental communication among researchers is vital. It’s also crucial for junior researchers to learn how to communicate their research to a non-specialist audience, to achieve a greater impact.

Organisers of the event
Organisers of the event, from left to right: Neel Le Penru, Judy Xie, Yurong Yu, Ric Zhang

After some discussion we came up with the idea of inviting interactive and entertaining presentations from multiple departments, using different formats such as demos, prototypes, installations and games to inspire members of our Imperial community. The title, Beauty of a more colourful world, not only refers to the colourful environmental system, but also our diverse Imperial research community. The “flash mob” element came about because of the tight timeline – normally an event like this takes months to plan and carry out, but we didn’t want to miss the perfect window created by COP26, so we sped up and made it come true in five weeks! (more…)

Impostor Syndrome, anyone?

An illustration showing three faces - one is green and smiling, one is yellow and ambivalent, one is red and sad. Above the faces are three tick boxes and the box above the smiling green face is ticked.

In this post Anna Goodwin and Ella Robson, our FoNS Wellbeing Advisors, explain what impostor syndrome is and share their tips for keeping those niggling feelings of inadequacy – at university, work and in social situations – at bay.

By Anna Goodwin and Ella Robson

First off, well done for making it to the end of this term! Hopefully you’re now starting to feel settled in your routine, and enjoying your course and all that student life has to offer.

If this not the case for you, however, then fear not – you’re almost certainly not alone. The later part of the autumn term can be a tricky time to navigate. With Freshers’ and start of term events now a distant memory, longer evenings drawing in and the reality of course demands kicking into gear, it’s understandable if you feel a little disheartened or overwhelmed.

If you also find yourself doubting whether you deserve your place on the course, or whether you belong at Imperial, then you may be experiencing a phenomenon known as impostor syndrome. (more…)

FoNS at COP26: Sofia Palazzo Corner

A photo of Sofia Palazzo CornerSofia Palazzo Corner is a PhD student at the Centre for Environmental Policy, and part of the Imperial delegation heading to COP26.

My research is about extremes in the Earth system (think rapid permafrost thaw, AMOC collapse) and specifically about finding a way to include these in simple climate models. The aim is to more fully represent the spectrum of plausible warming that could occur by 2100, taking into account the current uncertainty in many of the Earth system processes. As part of my research, I’m consulting researchers in different areas of climate science to obtain their expert judgement on the range of plausible behaviour within the Earth subsystems that they study. This is sometimes our best source of information when observational or model data is missing. (more…)