Laser Fusion Scientist

Kate uses powerful lasers in an attempt to build a new type of power station that works in the same way as the Sun.

The appeal of a fusion reactor is that unlike the nuclear power stations we use today, fusion does not produce high-level radioactive waste. Fusion also has the advantage that there is a plentiful supply of fuel -“Half a bath-full of seawater and the lithium in a laptop battery would supply 30 years’ worth of energy for one person” explains Kate.

Fusion is the joining together of atoms to release energy, and is the process that powers the Sun. “Fusion is a really efficient way of getting energy; the only downside is that it’s just really difficult to do because of the high temperatures involved. Confining the fuel at 100 million degrees without touching it is very difficult. The Sun does it using its gravitational field, but we can’t make a lab as big as a star!”

Kate works as part of a team based near Oxford, “we are investigating ways of confining the fuel using lasers”. If they succeed, not only will they will develop an almost limitless source of energy, but one that will not contribute to climate change. An added bonus for Kate is that she is doing a job she loves “I play around with lasers all day, get sent to different countries courtesy of the lab, and work with lots of other young people. What could be better?”

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Ice Scientist


Physics, Mathematics and Design & Technology

Earth and Space Science (University College London)

Katharine looks at what’s going on at the Earth’s Poles

She has always been keen on adventures, and working in the freezing cold of the Antarctic has been one of her biggest so far. “Ever since I can remember I’ve always been interested in nature and the planet and so after my A-levels I studied Earth and Space Science at university.”

Katharine now uses satellites to monitor the ice at the Earth’s poles to understand changes in our climate. “I’ve even been to visit NASA as well as the European Space Agency to learn about their satellites.”

To get the best results, she compares data from satellites with measurements she collects on the ice. “Doing experiments in the Antarctic has its own unique problems; the extreme cold stopped our generators and radar equipment from working and we resorted to the low tech solution of wrapping everything in a duvet.”

“Even getting to the ice was tough. During our month long voyage to the Antarctic, we faced storms with 60mph winds, waves 10m high and the only safe place was sitting on the floor. But seeing killer whales, emperor penguins and the endless blue sky made up for all of that; when I’m out on the ice it feels as if I am standing in the centre of a huge IMAX theatre with the sun, moon and clouds projected onto the dome above me. It’s truly breath-taking!”

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Gravity Researcher


A-level equivalent
German Abitur

BSc Applied Physics with Microcomputing, Diplom Physik

Postgraduate Degree
Dr. rer. Nat. (German equivalent of a physics PhD)

Andreas is trying to detect the tiny vibrations in space-time caused by cosmic explosions and colliding black holes.

Gravitational wave research is a new field, but it’s one that Andreas has already been able to make his mark on. ‘I am helping to improve the laser optics of the km-size laser antennas that are designed to catch and measure the gravitational waves caused by colliding black holes and exploding stars. Measuring these vibrations in space-time is very, very difficult and we’ve not yet succeeded, so I am trying to make our detectors even more sensitive. It’s a very exciting job because my ideas directly influence how we build the antennas.’

While Andreas enjoys working on the technical puzzles thrown up by gravitational wave detection, it was the people involved in it who first attracted him as a postgraduate student. ‘I chose gravitational waves because that research group in my university was the most fun to work with. It turns out, fortunately, that it is also a field where it is relatively easy to get involved with the key people and have a real impact internationally.’

Day to day life has remained just as rewarding for Andreas throughout his career. ‘It’s fun! I like to work with other people. I like to learn new things every day and I enjoy the freedom of leading my own research activity. I write a lot of research papers but I believe that my most important contribution has been, together with my colleagues, creating a very productive and happy research group for young researchers and students in Birmingham.’

Andreas’ career has taken him to many different countries, from his postgraduate work on the GEO600 project in Hanover, to the Virgo detector in Italy and now as a university lecturer and researcher in the UK. During this time, Andreas has seen the field grow from its humble beginnings to the very large international collaborations in existence today. But the best is yet to come. ‘The best times for our research field are still ahead and the excitement will last for many years!’

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Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Chemistry

Physics (Imperial College London)

By day Martin is a physicist, by night a DJ on Kiss FM.

“You don’t really apply for DJ jobs. To get one you need to build up your experience. I started DJing when I was at school – I worked on hospital radio as part of Duke of Edinburgh award. At university I volunteered for a student radio station and did a lot of networking – which landed me a job setting up a radio station for the music store HMV. I then met a guy who was an agent and he put me forward for a job at KISS FM at a time he knew someone else was leaving. It was a case of good timing”.

Martin studied physics at university “You’d be surprised how useful physics can be for just about anything; even DJing. In fact, physics landed me my first job in radio. HMV wanted to start a radio station to be aired in their stores across the country. It was based on some brand new software that nobody had used before – they needed somebody with both computing and radio experience to help set it up. I’d done a lot of computer programming in my degree and studying physics gives you the confidence to take on new challenges, so I really fitted the bill.”

“I’ve also used my understanding of physics to come up with a new way of DJing, I call it WiiJing – it’s DJing with a Nintendo Wii remote. I’d heard about people using a Wii remote as a computer mouse, and that’s what gave me the idea – I thought, why can’t I use it for DJing. If you understand acceleration and gravity and can do a bit of programming you can use a Wii remote to control the music. I’ve performed entire live gigs in front of crowds of people with nothing more than a couple of Wii remotes in my hands!”

“I live in these two worlds, and they’re not that different. If you want to learn to DJ, physics can help you. There’s a lot of crossover from DJing and cutting edge physics.”

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Computer Games Designer


Physics, Mathematics, Geology

BSc Degree
Computer Science (Cardiff University)

MSc Degree
Character Animation (University of Bristol)

Chris programmes characters for video games.

“After my A-levels, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and so I took a gap year and worked in an aeronautics company through the Year in Industry programme. Although this placement wasn’t anything to do with what I ended up doing as a career, it was really useful – I learned a lot about working for a company, which helped me when applying for a job. I also managed to save some money to help pay for uni. Another advantage of taking a year out is that, unlike most of the people that are applying for degrees, you already know your A-level grades and so you’ve got a guaranteed place when you do go to university – and also get first pick of accommodation, months before everyone else.”

Chris decided on a degree in computer science after his placement, and then spent an extra year specialising in character animation for computer games. He now works for NaturalMotion; a leading video games development company and explains how what he learnt in A-level physics helps him in his job.

“Modern games rely on a piece of software called a physics-engine, this computer code governs how objects move and interact in a computer game. To build a physics-engine you really do need to understand physics. Objects won’t fall realistically without getting the gravity right, and if you don’t understand momentum you can’t create realistic explosions and collisions. The rules of physics need to be programmed in to a game and our physics-based animation engine has been used in lots of different games like Star Wars and Grand Theft Auto.”

“If you are interested in becoming a computer games designer, one of the most important pieces of advice I could give you is to take A-level physics and maths. So many aspects of games design rely on being able to reduce a game down to the physics and understanding what effect changing the rules and tweaking the numbers will have on the end experience.”

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Coastal Scientist


Geography, Physics and Maths

Geophysical Sciences (Southampton University)

Sally’s job is to predict what will happen if sea levels rise.

“Trying to find out what would happen if the sea rises is such an important question.  You can’t build flood defences if you don’t know how high the waves are going to be.”

Sally’s work uses both geography, to understand the way coasts change and how people use the coastline, and physics, to understand what happens to waves as they head towards the coast.

Despite physics not being her strongest subject, she felt it was the right choice for her, “I really enjoyed geography at school, but I found physics explained things which geography didn’t; how sea levels rise, and then how that affects the coast, and ultimately the people who live there.”

Whilst studying, Sally had opportunities to undertake fieldwork. “I enjoyed doing fieldwork because I could see how the processes fit together. It made my research become more ‘alive’. Going to different coastlines across the country was great – not many people can go for beach walks and claim they are doing work!”

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Structural Engineer


Physics, Design and Technology, Maths, Further Maths

Physics (University of Oxford)

Structural Engineering (Imperial College London)

Roma is an associate structural engineer at WSP who has designed bridges, skyscrapers and sculptures with leading architects.

She spent six years working on the Shard in London, for which she designed the foundations and spire.

“I really enjoy my job, every day is challenging and creative, and I don’t know many people that can genuinely say that. Engineering is a great way to use the maths and problem solving skills that I learnt from studying physics to do something practical. My favourite part is being able to point at cool buildings (like the Shard) and say, ‘I designed that!’

“My day at work varies depending on what stage my project is at. We start with conceptual design, meeting architects and clients to turn ideas into something that will stand up once built. During the design phase we do calculations, running computer models to test our design. And finally during construction, I visit site regularly to solve problems that occur as a building takes its physical form. The skills are transferrable anywhere in the world, and I’ve already had the opportunity to work in different countries.”

Although Roma has always been interested in architecture and design, she didn’t make the decision to become an engineer until partway through her degree.

“It is understandably difficult to know what you want to do with your life at 16. I chose to study physics at university, as it excited me the most and I believe that is the best way to ensure you get a rewarding education.  It kept my options open so that I could specialise later when I decided that I wanted to be an engineer.

“Engineering is such a fun and rewarding career. If you enjoy maths and physics, you should consider it. There are hundreds of different types of engineering you can look at, everything we eat, buy, our trains and cars, homes and offices would not be possible without engineers.”

Read next:

Roma the Engineer

From India to London Bridge: How the UK’s rising engineering star Roma Agrawal helped build The Shard – The Telegraph

A one-day diary from morning latte to lights out –

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Clinical Scientist

Emma uses her physics knowledge every day when looking after patients.

“I am constantly applying the physics I have learned to help diagnose medical problems,” says Emma, who uses computers to model how patients regulate blood-pressure and heart-rate. “The ultimate aim is to diagnose and treat heart disease earlier,” she explains. “I also work in surgical theatres, monitoring the status of patients’ spinal cords during major operations. If there is a problem I alert the surgeon, so they can prevent paralysis of the patient.”

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Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics

Astrophysics (University of Edinburgh)

Catherine uses NASA’s famous Hubble Telescope, as well as several large telescopes in Hawaii, to try and understand some of the mysteries of the universe.

“At the moment we’re trying to get funding to build telescopes up in space that are bigger and better than Hubble,” says Catherine, who was attracted to astrophysics as a teenager.

“I was always fascinated by the universe when I was at school. I also had a great physics teacher who spent a week at NASA at a teacher’s conference, and came back so enthused about space science that she inspired me to think about that aspect of physics.”

Catherine studied an MPhys degree in Astrophysics at Edinburgh University. “My degree involved lots of lectures and experiments in the labs, but during my masters, I got the chance to use a telescope in Scotland to measure the distance to a cluster of stars. This wasn’t easy as it was often cloudy!”. She then went on to do a PhD at Oxford.

“What I loved most about it was the opportunity to travel to La Palma in the Canary Islands to the European Northern Observatory and use the large telescopes there. My research used the data collected from these visits to find out how much dark matter there is in the universe.”

“Dark matter makes up more of the universe than normal matter (which is what we’re made from) but beyond that we don’t really know what it is. We do know that it’s useful though, as it surrounds our galaxy and holds it together.”

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Physics, Mathematics, IT, Graphical Communication

Architecture (Cardiff University)

Haydn is an architect who designs buildings around the world.

Haydn wasn’t sure what to study after his GCSEs, but he knew he wanted to design buildings for a living. “When I was eight years old, I went to Brighton on holiday with my parents and saw the Royal Pavilion there; the design just blew me away- it was at that point that I realised that I wanted to become an architect.”

“I didn’t know what to study after GCSEs, so I rang some universities to ask them which A-levels I should take to do architecture – they told me to take A-level physics, along with maths and either art or design. Although physics was my weakest science at GCSE, I’m glad I took the advice and persevered – in the end I got really good grades in Physics. I now realise just how important physics is to designing buildings; for example you need to understand materials, and how they are affected by heat and light, and also how vibrations affect buildings, if there is a natural disaster such as an earthquake. If you want your building to stay up, you just can’t ignore physics”.

After his A-levels, Haydn went on to study architecture at Cardiff University and now designs building for clients across the globe. “I often travel to other countries to meet clients to discuss plans and also to meet with engineers and building contractors to make sure that my designs are being built as I intended. My favourite part is seeing an idea that I came up with coming to life. There is nothing quite like knowing that the building you have designed will last and be enjoyed by people for many years, maybe even centuries to come.”

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