Saturday 23 November 2019

Things I've learnt on my first experiment

You might already know this, but I'm a laser/plasma physicist and I'm just about to finish my masters in research in Photonics from Imperial College. I am currently working at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, where my current research is basically in the field of laboratory astrophysics - recreating the conditions found in space in the lab! And exciting news for me ..  I've just finished my FIRST EVER experiment at SLAC!

I had collaborators from my home university, Imperial College, other collaborators from Livermore National Laboratory. It was also a chance for me to write my first ever proposal, see previous blog post here.

In this experiment, we're basically trying to recreate the conditions found in the interiors of planets such as Neptune and Uranus. I'll delve more into this in another blog post. 

But for now, let's delve into the life of a physicist on experiment at a scientific facility. Here are 5 things I've noticed whilst on experiment:

After the first week of setting up I quickly realised that we were always bumping into problems that we didn't think we would have and certain things we thought wouldn't have problems, ended up having problems and it was almost scary how many things could break in one day. Those of you that have been on experiments before understand the struggle I'm sure. 

One thing I noticed from the beginning was that, EVERYTHING, took way longer than we planned. We always had a plan, every night before the next day we'd make a plan and sometimes we'd speed through it and sometimes we would 

University taught me how important lab books were, but being on experiment when you're tired, really enforced the important of taking a log of what you're doing. Your future self will thank you later! 

This is my first ever experiment and I didn't realise how little sleep I would get. Some days involved working until 2am in the morning and starting the next day at 6am. Self care went off the edge during this experiment, and it was super hard to make sure that I took care of myself. 

Also, I noticed that in academia it's a given that on experiment you won't get any sleep, which I personally am not a fan of, staying healthy is super important. Also, there were comments floating around that implied that if you coudn't ahndle the long hours then academia wasn't for you. 
Let me know your thoughts on this, because I'm not sure if I agree with expecting people to not take care of themselves on experiments. :( 

I feel like with all the experiments I've been on, and heard about from others, the juicy data seems to come through on the last day. 

All in all, though, I've had a great time, got to meet some cool people and do cool science! Hopefully onwards and upwards from here for hopefully the next experiment! Let me know about your experiment experiences in the comments below. :) Happy experimenting! 

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Proposal Writing

Last month, I wrote my first ever proposal! It was quite nerve-wracking because I'm still not a PhD student yet and I felt like I wasn't knowledgeable enough to write a proposal.. I thought they were always things written by professors. 

But.. I overcame the whole imposter syndrome thing and told myself.. what have I got to lose. I can submit it and if it gets rejected, it gets rejected and I learn from the experience and then hope the next is successful. 

So having written the proposal I learnt a few things along the way and wanted to share them with you.. here are my top 5 tips for writing scientific proposals. 

1. Do your research
Read lots of papers and get up to date with your field so that, firstly, you don't do what someone else has already done but secondly, you'll find out what holes there are in your field so that you can do experiments to fill those knowledge holes!

Make sure to also include references in your proposal.. certainly if you are building off of previous research carried out by others. 

2. Plan
Find out the deadline for proposal submissions to the lab you would like to carry out your experiment in and then plan ahead of time. Write in when you'd like to have a first draft, who you would like to proof read your draft and let them know you are writing a proposal. You certainly do not want to be scavenging for references and reading papers last minute before the deadline. 

3. Check the format
Depending on where you are submitting your proposal you will find that there will be a format for you to stick to. Normally, they will provide sections and questions that they would like you to answer and address in your proposal. 

Most proposals include sections that address the 'bigger picture' of the science/experiment you want to do, how you will carry out your experiment, what you will find out and 

There are also page limits that you need to stick to. Being as concise as possible is ideal when it comes to writing proposals. It's also helpful if there are simulations to back up what you expect to see happen in your experiment. 

I also really like using ShareLatex because not only can you use Latex in an easy to use way but you can also add editors and other people to the document so that they can edit it remotely. 

Using ShareLatex to write my proposal and add others to it to edit/proofread. 

4. Ask others 
Since this was my first ever proposal, I certainly asked the more knowledgeable around me to send their previous proposals as examples that I could learn from. Also, most laboratory websites provide examples of previous accepted proposals that you can also look at and learn from. This definitely helped me with structuring my proposal and working out what made a proposal effective and successful. 

5. Proof read 
Getting others who are experts in the experiment you are going to carry out is super important, at least for me it was. I'm still a baby in my field and there is a lot left to learn, so have experts in my field proofread my proposal was very useful and gave me confidence that I wasn't writing anything that was completely wrong. 

- - - 

So there's some tips from me, that I have learnt during my first proposal writing experience. I'm sure if I write some more, I'll learn more things about writing a successful proposal, and I'll make sure to update this in the future. So watch this space and comment down below any of your proposal writing tips, I'd love to know what you have learnt!

But for the meantime, happy proposal writing! 

SLAC is where I wanted to carry out my experiment and where I submitted my first ever proposal too.

Saturday 20 January 2018

How I manage my time

One of my Instagram followers kindly asked me to write a blog post about how I manage to produce a radio show, write articles for Forbes, keep up with social media, take part in science events, do a masters, socialise and also find time for sleep!

The real answer is I don't have a clue! But there are things I do to help manage my time - so here are 5 things I do to keep on top of my work:

1. Keep a diary
I like to keep a diary where I pencil in important meetings, deadlines and goals for the day. I keep this with me all the time and whenever I'm working it's always next to me so I can tick off tasks as I do them but it also reminds me of what's coming up for me for the day. 

2. Plan your day
I often spend about 5-10 minutes before bed planning the next day and what I'd like to achieve. I aim to write down small achievable goals that I'll put into my diary and tick off as I achieve them. There are certain things that I try to keep consistent: I normally set Wednesday afternoons for Science Mixtape (radio show) preparation and Saturday mornings for Forbes articles. I tend to leave social media related tasks for my commute to and from university - my commute is about an hour so this gives me enough time to tweet, post on Instagram and do a bit of reading for Forbes article ideas.

3. Make time for fun 
This one is something I can struggle with, I tend to get so caught up in never-ending deadlines and tasks I need to complete. But one thing I've started doing in the last few years is scheduling time for fun and my favourite hobbies. I try and climb at least once a week, play music/sing/beatbox once a week and I always take Friday afternoons/nights off. I put them in my diary just as I would for meetings or work-related things. This is a reminder for me to take time to have fun and if it's not in my diary I tend to let the work-guilt take over and I'll end up working lots. By planning in my fun time it makes sure I take the time to put work aside for a few hours and de-stress and have fun!

4. Prioritise and learn how to say no
Sometimes I get requests to do certain interviews, events and other tasks and sometimes I am just drowning in work that I have to say no. It does make me super sad to say no to things :(  Before I would say yes to everything and end up in a position where I would do everything, burn out and forget to have me-time. Without the time to do these tasks, they'd end up being only 70% as good as I'd like or less or I end up reducing my fun time. So nowadays I try and only say yes to the things that I know I will have time for so that I can do them as well as I'd like, won't burn out and I'll have time for myself too.

5. Tomato Timer
I often use the tomato timer so that I can work more efficiently and get things done quicker. I'm prone to procrastination - especially with social media - so using the tomato timer forces me to stop looking at my phone. The tomato timer works by setting up a timer for 25 minutes of work time and then you can schedule in 5 and 10-minute breaks. It's a great way to break up your work so that you don't forget to take breaks and allows me to have short bursts of productive work which is great for writing reports or reading papers. I generally set myself a goal for the 25 minutes - something along the lines of: read and annotate a paragraph/page of X paper or write notes for my next Forbes article. Hope it works for you!

All in all, for me, it's all about organisation and keeping a routine. And yes, I do have days where I don't complete some or any of the things on my to-do list for the day. I always have to remind myself that I'm only human and there's only so much work I can physically do in one day and that sometimes life can get in the way of things too.

Also, motivation is key - I do so many things because I love the things that I do - I love talking about science so I make time for it even if it's part of my weekend. So do what you love and it won't feel like you're working - follow your heart and passion! :)

I really hope these tips have been useful and let me know in the comments if you use any of these and how you work efficiently - I'd love to know!

Monday 10 July 2017

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2017

Two years after exhibiting with Tokamak Energy at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, I'm back this year but this time with the Make A Supernova group! It's a collaboration of scientists from Imperial College, AWE and the University of Oxford that all work on laboratory astrophysics. The aim of the stand is to get the public aware of the exciting field of research called laboratory astrophysics!

For anyone that is unsure, laboratory astrophysics is the field of research where scientists recreate astrophysical scenarios in the lab. Small-scale experiments can be scaled up using scaling laws to find out more about astrophysical events. One of the mot exciting, violent and impressive events in the Universe are supernovae, they are dying massive stars that end their lives with a bang! They eject matter at speeds close to 10% of the speed of light and give off more radiation than our Sun will ever emit in its lifetime! Supernovae can also outshine an entire galaxy in a brief moment. These powerful events are also the beginnings of life since it is in these spectacular explosions where heavier elements like calcium that makes up our bones and iron which makes up our blood are made. This is where the saying we are made of star dust comes from. Without supernovae we wouldn't exist therefore studying these events is important for learning more about the origins of life. 

The Make A Supernova stand is all about recreating supernovae in the lab. A team of scientists from the University of Oxford (Nature Physics, Gregori et. al) managed to recreate the shock waves seen in supernovae explosions in the lab. They fired 3 laser beams using the Vulcan laser system at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory onto a miniscule carbon rod in an argon filled chamber. The rod heated up, turned into a plasma and exploded outwards, sending a shock waves outwards into the argon gas. A plastic grid was introduced into the setup to introduce inhomogeneities or 'lumps' into the flow just like the supernova Cassiopeia A (depicted in our logo below). 

Our stand at The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is based on this work and the field of laboratory astrophysics. But why am I there? Well, my MSci project which you can find out more about here, is a laboratory astrophysics related project where I was recreating bow shocks found in regions around newly formed stars in the lab. I'll be talking all things laboratory astrophysics at the Exhibition - feel free to ask me as many questions as you'd like - comment down below! 

Two/three months prior to the event I've been helping Dr. Suzuki-Vidal from Imperial College (Head of Make A Supernova stand from the Imperial team) prepare for the event. It's been so much fun having my own input into the event and being able to put my artistic and creative side to use - I loved it so much! Here's what the Imperial team have been doing in order to prepare for the event as well as us in action at the event in pictures and videos:

Go #TeamMakeASupernova ! We were sitting next to Spencer Kelly from BBC Click !! I totally FANGIRLED!!!

All the equipment has been transferred from Imperial to The Royal Society! Bring on #SummerScience

Yep, the hand gestures are a must when talking about supernovae!

I got to meet Spencer Kelly from BBC Click!!! Made my day!

Check out me and Spencer Kelly on BBC Click playing with the Air Vortex Canon demo at The Royal Society here! (6:08)

Plasma, the fourth state of matter, an ionised gas!

These two are obsessed with #PlasmaHorns -- whatever that means! ;)

Imperial Team! :)

One of my university lecturers, who happened to teach the 'Physics of the Universe' course, came to visit our stand! Thanks for coming Dr. Roberto Trotta! He's an amazing astrophysics and science communicator you definitely need to check him out here!


My MSci lab partner, Daniel Russell, helped out too! Our MSci project was in the field of #LaboratoryAstrophysics which was the field of the stand so we got to share our project experience with the #SummerScience visitors! Was SO much fun! You can check out what our MSci project was all about here

Prep day for #SummerScience - bringing in all the equipment from Imperial to The Royal Society!

Vlogging my experience of #SummerScience with #MakeASupernova

Having so much fun at #SummerScience ! :)

#MakeASupernova team with peeps from Oxford, Imperial and AWE! Was so great to meet all these super cool scientists!

Got to see the AMAZING @thermoflynamics perform some SICK science-y rhymes! 

#LunchBreak with the #ImperialTeam on Day 1 of #SummerScience
Had such beautiful weather!

Got to meet an amazing gravitational waves researcher from University of Southampton, Emma Osborne! She's also a YouTuber so check her out here and follow her @Emmanigma ! She's DOPE! She also gave me these super awesome postcards which you can purchase here.

Definitely check @Emmanigma out - she's ACE! She's such an inspiration and gave me so many lovely #scicomm tips ! #ForeverGrateful

Mega smoke ring maker

T-shirt design

First look at the stand! There's Colin Danson from AWE to add scale to the stand.

You can check out my short vlog of my experience of the event and the preparations leading to the event in the video below:

Just wanted to say a HUGE thank you to Jena Meinecke, Colin Danson and Francisco Suzuki-Vidal for organising an AMAZING stand at The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition! It was great fun to be a part of, I met some amazing scientists, science communicators, students and TV presenters! I even got to inspire an A level student to reconsider physics as a potential career path which made me day!

A special thank you goes to Francisco Suzuki-Vidal for making this experience super fun and for listening to my radical ideas for social media and for also doing Facebook LIVE videos with me!

All in all, it was a GREAT experience and I would definitely like to get involved again if the opportunity arises! I hope some of you reading this got a chance to visit The Royal Society and see the amazing scientific research on display! 

Monday 12 June 2017

Next STEM Generation

The next generation of people are the future so in order to get them interested in STEM we must get them while they are young.

Let’s just take a look at what we see in toy stores. In the girls aisle we see a blur of different shades of pink, if we focus onto the items, we begin to see tutus and dolls.  The boys’ aisle, however, is a blur of blue which turns out to be construction toys which help develop their skills, like logic, problem solving and creative thinking. Shouldn’t girls be able to play with the same skill-enriching toys? If we are going to try and get the next generation interested in STEM this is the place to start.

Taking the young to planetariums, hands-on workshops and live events to see science in front of their eyes is a great way to stimulate their interest but the key thing here is maintaining that interest. As they grow they may start to outgrow the ‘family outings’ and begin to wander into the Universe on their own – so how do we keep them interested in STEM? We tell them that STEM needs them, that they are a young, curious mind that could help unravel the mysteries of our cosmos. One major way we can do this is by getting them involved with real science. Whether that is participating in identifying cancer cells, counting birds or controlling an experiment online that they can see and do real science at their fingertips. Make STEM something that can be done at home – using everyday objects to uncover the delightful surprises that STEM has to offer. Science shows like The Royal Institution Christmas lectures where the whole family can get involved and do science at home should be something that we see more on TV.

So we can act directly on the young ones but what’s to stop the parents from telling them that STEM is too hard or ask the question what can you possibly do with STEM? We need to educate the parents and let them know about the myriad of opportunities available to their children via STEM. This can be done by hosting events specifically for parents. We can get the parents into schools and educate them on the myriad of careers available to their child. Ex-students from the school could talk to the parents about their progression from the school so that they can see real life career paths that their child could also pursue.

But let’s take a step into the classroom. This is where those young minds first encounter STEM via academic means and this is where they decide if they want to take STEM further. Classrooms sometimes lack enthusiastic teachers, stimulating demonstrations and real STEMists (a scientist, technologist, engineer or medic). Now, of course we cannot make it compulsory for teachers to be enthusiastic but we can bring real STEMists in. Where the STEMist should not throw facts at the students but should instead spark their interest, whether this is via a hands-on experiment, a group project or through trips to real laboratories, observatories and other STEM landmarks that would get them engaged in STEM. The students need to be able to see that STEM has a purpose in their life and that with STEM they can truly change the world - they are the ones that shall sculpt the future, our future.

In particular, a STEMist who was an ex-student of the school would have a larger impact on current students as they used to sit in the same classroom seats as them. They can relate to them on a different level so that they can truly believe that they have the capability to follow in their footsteps and be successful in STEM. More importantly, bringing undergraduates who were also ex-students into the school could relate to the students even more as they are roughly the same age and they can share their experiences and knowledge about the wonders of STEM.

All in all, STEM needs to be approachable and the stereotype of STEM being hard and boring needs to be eradicated via interaction with the next generation through the methods aforementioned; hopefully this is the way forward for a STEM rich future!

-- Meriame Berboucha