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Karen Aplin

Head of Physics Teaching Laboratories

I manage the Physics Teaching Laboratories, and do research in experimental atmospheric and space physics. Before starting at Oxford in 2009 I was a research physicist in Space Science at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. I hold a PhD in experimental atmospheric physics from the Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, a BSc (Hons) in Natural Sciences (Physics and Philosophy) from Durham, and a diploma in music performance from Trinity College London. I was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 2010.

I coordinate all undergraduate experimental physics teaching, within the Department, including liaising with the heads of each subject-based lab, and I provide guidance to the lab demonstrators as well as managing the laboratory staff.

I lead the BA Group Industrial Project Programme, a new project scheme which aims to improve the employability of our third year BA students in the context of solving a real industrial problem.

Outside the normal day-to-day management of the labs I also supervise undergraduate student projects and train demonstrators. I am working to improve the practical training of our undergraduates by modernising equipment, improving documentation and consistency between each laboratory. Experimental work is in a unique position to teach a wide range of transferable and technical skills, relevant both in scientific and other careers, and I naturally emphasise this to our students.

My research interests cover atmospheric and space physics, with an emphasis on instrumentation and electrical processes. I have a special interest in electrical processes in planetary atmospheres, (see my books Electrifying Atmospheres and Planetary Atmospheric Electricity) and related laboratory analogue and spacecraft experiments, in particular. I have recently become an editor of Journal of Electrostatics.

I am also interested in history and philosophy of science, and the broader cultural aspects of physics. I am an editor of the new European Geophysical Union journal "History of Geo- and Space Sciences".

My ResearcherID is available here

Specific projects include:

  • commercialisation of a small radiation detector originally developed for weather balloons (STFC Impact Accelerator Account)
  • formation and measurement of cluster-ions naturally present in Earth's atmosphere, their electrical and optical properties, and relevance to radiative balance, with Prof Mike Lockwood FRS.
  • properties of charged aerosols and dust at planetary bodies like asteroids and the Moon (with Dr Neil Bowles)
  • volcanic lightning and electrical properties of ash, both for Earth and on Venus (with my DPhil student Martin Airey in the Earth Sciences Department). (Royal Astronomical Society Tompkins Instrumentation Award)
  • measurement of cosmic rays and solar radiation as part of the Snowdon Weather Stations project since 2005 - a combined outreach and research activity
  • Lord Kelvin's atmospheric electricity measurements. You can also watch a video of a demonstration Kelvin water dropper electrostatic generator, constructed by Jeff Lidgard and used at the Physics Department 2013 Open Day for prospective students.

This section refers to my work on weather in music. Articles about weather in classical music with Dr Paul Williams were published in the Royal Meteorological Society's journal Weather and in the American Geophysical Union's Eos Transactions. A paper on weather in pop music, led by Dr Sally Brown, has recently been published in Weather. This paper is not currently available to non subscribers, but a talk on it was given at the 2015 European Geosciences Union conference on 17th April 2015, with substantial media interest.

I played a major part in this Radio 3 documentary on storms in music in the Prom interval on July 18th 2013, was interviewed live on BBC Radio Wales on 7th February 2014, and BBC Radio Oxford on 16th April and 29th July 2015. Another recent newspaper article is available from California's Sacramento Bee.

I was featured reporting on my research on Radio 4's PM programme on 19th October 2011, on Canadian national radio and on the Canadian Weather Network. Written reports were all over the web, notably Financial Times, New Scientist and Gramophone.