Karen Aplin

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Karen Aplin

Head of Physics Teaching Laboratories

As of summer 2018, I have moved to Bristol University. Please see my new web page and contact details.

I manage the Physics Teaching Laboratories, teach at St Catherine's College, and maintain an active research programme in experimental atmospheric and space physics. Before starting at Oxford in 2009 I worked as 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.

Through funding from the STFC Impact Accelerator Account I have commercially developed a hand held radiation detector that uses a scintillator sensor and novel circuitry to measure the count rate and energy of energetic particles at low power and low cost. The detector is suitable for use on a variety of platforms, such as a stand alone device or on a weather balloon or drone, with a range of interfacing options including USB or Bluetooth. The instrument is described in an open access scientific publication. If you are interested in buying or developing this detector please contact me.

I coordinate all undergraduate experimental physics teaching within the Department, including liaising with the heads of ~10 subject-based labs. I provide guidance to the ~100 lab demonstrators as well as managing the laboratory staff (4.5 FTE) and budget. I am also a College Lecturer at St Catherine's College.

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

Beyond day-to-day management of the labs I also supervise undergraduate student projects and train demonstrators. I aim to improve the practical training of our undergraduates by upgrading equipment, improving documentation and consistency between each laboratory. Recently I have led the development of new experiments and rejuvenation of others to modernise the training we give our students in signal acquisition and data analysis.

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. I am 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".

Specific projects include:

  • commercialisation of a small radiation detector originally developed for weather balloons (STFC Impact Accelerator Account)
  • volcanic lightning and electrical properties of volcanic ash. I led a chapter for this new book
  • electrical processes in planetary atmospheres, particularly Venus and Neptune. I am a co-investigator on the lightning camera on the Japanese Akatsuki mission.
  • measurement of cosmic rays and solar radiation as part of the Snowdon Weather Stations project since 2005 - a combined outreach and research activity currently funded as part of the RAS200 project. Real time data available here.
  • formation and measurement of cluster-ions naturally present in Earth's atmosphere, their electrical and optical properties, and relevance to radiative balance.
  • properties of charged aerosols and dust at planetary bodies like asteroids and the Moon
  • 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, was also published in Weather. You can access a talk on it which was given at the 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.