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Caroline Wood, representing the STFC, meets Science Minister Amanda Soloway (left)
(Credit: John Deehan)

27 March 2020

The lives of policy makers and scientific researchers might seem poles apart, but the recent STEM for BRITAIN Awards brought the world of the laboratory right into the heart of Parliament itself. This annual event, held this year on Monday 9 March, gives PhD students from across the country the opportunity to present posters of their work directly to Members of Parliament and representatives from the country’s most eminent scientific societies.

UKRI is a proud sponsor of STEM for BRITAIN, recognising that it promotes valuable two-way dialogue: the students gain an appreciation of how science can influence policy making, whilst in return the MPs glean an insight into the research process. From start to finish, the room pulsed with lively conversation as a steady stream of parliamentarians came through the door. Even newly-appointed Minister for Science, Amanda Solloway, made time in her busy schedule to drop in.

STFC had a particularly strong presence in the morning’s Physics section, including Kirsty Paton from the University of Glasgow. Her PhD is mostly funded by STFC through an industrial CASE PhD studentship, with additional support from a commercial partner, Quantum Detectors. Her work focuses on developing the next generation of cameras for electron microscopes. These can image details up to 10,000 times smaller than traditional microscopes that use light, even to the level of individual atoms.

Dr Ceri Brenner (left) and Kirsty Paton
(Credit: John Deehan)

“The cameras used in electron microscopy typically blur the images they record, which reduces the level of insight we can obtain from the images” Kirsty explained. “They also have very slow frame rates, which limits the kind of dynamic processes we can study. My work aims to open up new possibilities by developing detectors that record sharper images and that can operate at higher frame rates.”

The UK’s involvement with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, was also represented thanks to Daniela Koeck from the University of Sussex. STFC manages the UK’s membership of this world-famous institution which operates the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva. Daniela’s project involves analysing data from ATLAS, one of the two detectors at the LHC which discovered the Higgs Boson particle in 2012.

“My research involves assessing the data collected by the experiment to search for Dark Matter, as well as new physics effects coming from predictions from a theory called Supersymmetry” she said. “In particular, I’m studying how ATLAS selects interesting events with electrons, which is critical to look for all new physics”.

Daniela Koeck presenting in the physics section
(Credit: John Deehan)

Meanwhile, in the mathematics section Evangelos Papoutsellis was presenting the results of his work within the Collaborative Computational Project in Tomographic Imaging at the University of Manchester. This aims to develop a toolbox of algorithms to increase the quality of cross-sectional images made using X-rays. Potentially, these could also be applied to medical diagnostic procedures such as Positron Emission Tomography and Magnetic Resonance imaging.

“We have a strong collaboration with STFC and in particular the ISIS Neutron and Muon source” Evangelos said. “This has allowed us to use our software to reconstruct and analyse 4D Neutron tomography data”.  

STFC staff were also involved with the very difficult task of judging which posters to award the section prizes to: this included Dr Ceri Brenner from the Central Laser Facility, based at STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. “The range of subjects in the physics section was very impressive – from particle physics, to climate modelling, to applied detector development – and the standard of poster and verbal communication on the day was very high,” she said. “It was really hard to judge and come up with just three winners, and is why we ended up with three medal winners and one special mention!”

Evangelos Papoutsellis presenting in the mathematics section
(Credit: Caroline Wood)

“It was good to see so many MPs attending because STEM for BRITAIN drives engagement on two levels” she added. “Firstly, it creates a platform to promote science and the impact it has for the UK, and secondly it showcases early career research talent to policy makers and people of influence”.

Our participants agreed that the event was a valuable opportunity to hone their skills in communicating research to a policy-oriented audience. “The event was very useful to think about how to explain my research to the wider community, in particular politicians,” Daniela said. “Even though what I’m doing at the moment is ‘blue sky’ research, high-energy physics has driven technological developments that find many applications in everyday life, from the World Wide Web to machine learning and Artificial Intelligence”.

Kirsty added that the event made her realise that the ability to communicate the value and implications of our research to policy makers is a key skill for all scientists. “Speaking with MPs gave me a greater appreciation of their perspective and the challenges they face in using science to form policies. I'm certainly more interested in how science informs policy making and vice versa than I was before”, she concluded.


Do you know any early-career researchers who would like to present their work in Parliament? Point them to the STEM for BRITAIN website: applications for the 2021 event are likely to open in September this year.

Last updated: 27 March 2020


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