A week in the life of a physicist

7 October 2020

A screen shot of a video call between participants at this year's summer school

‘Ensuring that our doors are open to all is something that we are continually working on,’ says Kathryn Boast, Access Officer for the Department of Physics. ‘Showing young people what it means to be a physicist – or someone who supports a physicist’s work – is an important aspect of demystifying this world and that’s why, in spite of COVID-19, we went ahead with our annual summer school this year.’

Over the course of the last week of July, half a dozen members of the department hosted a cohort of local Year 12 students and gave them a unique insight into the world of research. Conducting everything online, students and supervisors were able to meet, examine and process data, explore new ideas and discuss their thoughts. At the end of the week, an online celebration event, styled as a miniature conference, gave the students a chance to explain their project and their conclusions to the rest of the group and supervisors.

Sam Henry was one of the academics who hosted students: ‘The students analysed data taken with a particle detector to see how the radiation levels varied in different locations; this is the sort of project experimental physicists do to assess new sensors. We had regular video chats to discuss their results, just as particle physicists at Oxford do with our collaborators around the world.'

Unique opportunities

The summer school coincided with UNIQ Physics this year, and so the summer school students were able to join all of the UNIQ lectures; this gave them opportunities to dig into a wide range of physics topics alongside their project work. (UNIQ is the university’s access programme for Year 12 students that gives them a taste of life as an Oxford student.) In addition, the cohort were offered more general talks on problem-solving skills, applying to Oxford and ways to get involved with physics beyond the classroom.

Kathryn concludes: ‘Taking the summer school online was undoubtedly a challenge. Without access to laboratories, the options available were much more limited than usual, and some of the social aspects of the week were inevitably lost. Nevertheless, the researchers and staff who gave up their time to support the students did a brilliant job under very difficult circumstances, and we are hugely grateful to them. The students enjoyed their project work, gaining insight into what physics research involves, and many were inspired to engage more with physics that goes beyond what they learn in school. Looking ahead to 2021, although we hope to be able to once more welcome students into our buildings, it is reassuring to know that an online summer school can be a success!’

If you would like to find out more or be involved with future summer school / work experience programmes, please get in touch with Kathryn Boast, Access Officer.