Being a first-year postgraduate, this is my first summer at Bath Uni. I thought campus would be somewhat deserted – undergrads are away on holiday and we postgraduates who don’t get that luxury make up a quarter of the student population. I was wrong. I didn’t expect summer students, including entire classes from schools, to arrive and keep campus buzzing with life. Well, now I know.
In the Physics CDT programme, my first six months consisted of lectures, lab techniques, computational techniques, and an industry placement in the Netherlands. For the next six months up to now, I’ve been working on my PhD project.
The project involves using my supervisor’s atomic force microscope (AFM) to image the surface of crystals. Images can have such a high resolution that individual atoms can be seen. That all things are made of atoms is like the holy grail of science, so to see atoms for the first time can be satisfying. Have a look – they appear as orange/red dots in the photo below.
Imaging samples to atomic resolution allows their nanoscale structure to be analysed. What’s more is that an AFM can also move atoms. The goal is then to customise samples at the atomic level such that they gain desirable properties for use in future technologies.
Experimental physics can be frustrating because things don’t usually work. It’s the hope of finding a way to make things work that provides motivation to keep going. However, there can only be so many failures before I start to doubt my sanity. Here's what I’ve gathered that helps keep my mind in check.
- I get along great with my supervisor. When we’re having lunch or coffee together, she tends to mention how wonderful her dog is. I used to be a cat person before I met her; I am now a dog person.
- There’s more freedom in PhD life compared to undergrad because I choose how to spend my time. The caveat is that it’s super easy to procrastinate. You see, with great freedom comes great responsibility.
- I’m more willing to organise lunch with friends. Working on a PhD is isolating enough as it is. Making the most of opportunities to socialise keeps me in touch with reality.
- Small breaks between work is refreshing. Pokémon Go has given me extra incentive to walk around campus. (I’m in Team Mystic.)
- Having tennis scheduled at the end of my day helps me unwind. It gives me something different to look forward to.
Despite frustrations of not making progress and the guilt of procrastinating, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. After all, I didn’t run in the opposite direction after graduating, so student life must not be too bad, right?