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Time to shine – the women taking laser tech to the next level

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we spoke to some of the women in our Central Laser Facility (CLF) and their routes into laser science.

Dr Sarah Needham

Link scientist in the OCTOPUS imaging facility

Tell us about your job

I work with user groups that come in to use the facility. I help them figure out what they need to do in their experiments or how they need to approach it. I enjoy this aspect of my job because it means I get to work on lots of different projects, with people from so many disciplines.

The other part of my job is my own research project. Our team has been looking at the structure of epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFRs), which by understanding them, can aid cancer drug development.

How did you get into science and laser science?

I didn’t do very well in my A-levels so I completed a two year Higher National Diploma at the University of Wolverhampton. Each year the Health Science division had an award for top performers across the year and I won both awards, this helped me to do an extra year in Biomedical Science to get my undergraduate degree.  After this, I did an accredited master’s degree in Biomedical Science and along the way I decided that I wanted to get involved with research. Following my master’s degree, I started a PhD in Biology at the University of York. My PhD was actually a CASE studentship with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) which meant I spent some time learning skills there too.

I worked in Daresbury Laboratory from 2005 until February 2009 when at the group moved down to RAL, so I’ve been here for 10 years now. I was looking for a way to have an impact, even if a small one, and so started work on EGFRs.

What do you do outside of work?

I play football for Wantage Town ladies and for All Mixed-Up mixed gender team in the campus Harwell Six-a-side lunchtime league. I also play badminton and rounders, and watch Chesterfield FC.  

I think it is important to realise you can still do these kinds of activities whilst being a scientist.

Emily Galvin

Fourth year mechanical engineering apprentice

Emily, or Lil as she is known, is completing her Higher National Certificate. Every three months she gets to work with a different team within STFC.

Tell us about your job

So far I have worked in Technology, Diamond Light Source, CERN and the CLF team amongst others.

I’m about to start my three month placement with the Mechanical Engineering group at the CLF, but a few months ago I did work with the CLF for a month to help build part of the Cobalt demo in the CLF Visitor Centre (find out more about SORS and how it is being used here). I’ve also learned the basics of CAD at the CLF. The CLF Mechanical Engineering team are lovely to work with!

My placement at CLF will be part of the Vulcan Petawatt operations, being taught how to design an experiment. Scientists will come to me with an idea for an experimental setup, and I will be part of the team that works out the logistics and builds it.

How did you get into science and laser science?

When I finished my A levels I knew that I didn’t want to go to University, but I didn’t know what else there was. I remember feeling like the world was over! It was actually my PE teacher, the mum of a current CLF engineer, who told me about the apprenticeship scheme.

Choosing the apprenticeship scheme felt like the right option for me because I could learn on the job and do what I love, without the cost of a degree. In the next three years I hope to either have to either have completed or be working towards my degree.

Katie Mordecai

Fourth year mechanical engineering apprentice

Tell us about your job

I am currently working as a technician with the high-powered lasers group, as part of a team lead by Steph Tomlinson.  My work so far has included pressure-testing windows for both the DiPOLE laser that we have at the CLF, and the upgraded one that we are currently building for XFEL. I am also helping with setting up vacuum chambers and pumping them down (creating the vacuum), and safety testing.

Mechanical engineers at the CLF are responsible for the safety of the lab equipment, so that is also part of my job.

From day one, the team I work with at the CLF has been friendly and welcoming. When I’m doing a task, they never fail to provide me with support when I need it.

This might sound funny, but I like that you can make mistakes. It’s an atmosphere that allows you to learn practically without fear, because you’ve always got someone supervising and supporting you. I’ll stand back from my work and my supervisor will say “What have you missed” and we work on solving it together.

How did you get into science and laser science?

Like many apprentices, I went straight from my GCSEs into the apprenticeship scheme.

I found out about the apprenticeship through a careers fayre. There was a STFC panel there that I could speak to and find out straight from them what it was like. I saw the campus when I came for an open day. I was always interested in engineering, but school just wasn’t for me. I love that I can learn on the job here.

Charlotte Sanders

Senior Experimental Scientist within the Artemis Group

Tell us about your job

In Artemis we’ve got two experimental chambers; the chamber where we analyse solid state materials is the part I’m most involved with. The chamber holds the sample, a crystal usually, and then has an electron analyser. Essentially, light strikes the surface of the sample, electrons come out and then we study those electrons to find out how they ‘lived’ inside the crystals. At the moment with Artemis we’re moving to a new lab; we’ll be setting up our new laser over the next year, which will allow us to take faster measurements with a higher quality.

My previous job was working on the synchrotron in Denmark, and there we were also doing photoemission spectroscopy, in a general sense looking at systems in equilibrium. We would shine light on the sample and study the electrons that came out. In my new job here, instead of using a single light pulse, we use two. This allows us to first excite the electrons in the crystals and, with the second eject the electrons. We’re also able to control the time between the two pulses to view the behaviour of the electrons over time. We’re looking at electron dynamics in this way which is a new and exciting area for me.

How did you get into science and laser science?

I did my PhD in Physics at the University of Texas in Austin. Following that I did a short post doc at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, followed by a longer post doc in Denmark at Aarhus University for four years. By the end of my four years, I was an assistant professor then after my term was up, I started searching for another place to work and luckily found this job here.

I had been to the facility before as a user and it was useful having that experience because it gave me some understanding of the facility, its mission and the equipment I would be working with.

If you enjoy science there are a lot of professional opportunities in this area, ranging from fundamental research to industrial applications. It’s good because you can often have quite a lot of control over the work you do and it’s definitely an area which society has a real need for. You’re part of a collaboration making a big contribution, each individual person contributes their own part but together you can make real change.

Mariastefania ‘Stefania’ De Vido

Laser Scientist

Tell us about your job

In parallel with an engineering doctorate at Heriot-Watt University, I have been working for the CLF on developing advanced gain materials for the DiPOLE laser system.

DiPOLE lasers include a DiPOLE prototype system used to study and improve our technology further, the DiPOLE100 laser installed at the HiLASE facility in the Czech Republic and D100X, which is currently being built here to be shipped to the European XFEL in Germany. The D100X laser is going to be employed for laboratory astrophysics experiments where it may even be used to recreate the diamond rain predicted to happen inside giant planets!

Day to day, I work on a variety of responsibilities ranging from hands-on experimental to theory.

My research aims to improve the repetition rate, output energy, and emission bandwidth of DiPOLE lasers making them suitable for day-to-day application in the industry and the healthcare sectors.

I was recently awarded a fellowship from the The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, which will allow me to carry out this novel research. The gain material is at the very heart of our laser systems and crucial for their performance, and there is a lot of room for improvement

How did you get into science and laser science?

I found this job just after completing my MSc in Engineering Physics. I was searching for a job on lasers with a strong research component, and I found an advert for my position and I applied.

I like the challenge of solving problems and translating ideas in reality.

What do you do outside of work?

In my free time I enjoy playing guitar, visiting art exhibitions and going for long walks in the countryside.

Visit the CLF website for more information on the work we are doing with lasers.

Find out more about routes into a STEM career on our Team Science website.

Last updated: 05 March 2019


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