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Chloe McElvaney

University of York

MPhys (Hons) Physics with Astrophysics
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The Big Picture

Chloe’s Year in Industry revolved around nuclear fusion where she was responsible for finding ways of controlling which ions were redistributed in the fusion process in tokamak plasmas using MATLAB. 

“So I was looking at the crash times, the crash periods, what ions were affected, (and) how it was affecting the possibility of self-sustaining fusion in the future.”

The Learning Curve

Chloe was asked by her CCFE supervisors prior to starting the project that she became familiar with MATLAB. She hadn’t encountered this during her astrophysics course, but found there was a range of free online courses which could be used. These courses provided her with a good foundation and her learning and understanding improved when she started the project.

She hadn’t enrolled in a plasma physics module prior to the placement so she used resources at the University library to ensure that she was up to speed. When Chloe started the placement, she was invited to a week-long summer school which covered a wide range of topics in the field. This helped her feel confident with the content.

“The learning curve is steep but very rewarding.”

Chloe’s Impact

“CCFE is a research intensive institution and everyone there is working on something quite specific. So I think from that perspective it’s hard to appreciate the impact of your individual work in regards to the wider fusion aims in industry. However, every piece of work contributes towards understanding and knowledge and paves the way for the next research student.”

In Chloe’s Words

Full video transcription

Well I wanted to work in the nuclear sector anyway, so I just made a list of all the companies that were doing a year in industry, so EDF, Culham, and a few others, but then I went to Culham for the interview day and once I had the tour of the tokamaks I decided straight away that I wanted to work there. It was quite impressive that you work with world-leading academics and they’re just down the corridor from you and it’s just an impressive place to be and an impressive place to work and it makes you feel like kind of blown away by all the research that’s going on around you.

Prior to the placement I was definitely getting quite nervous and worrying that I wasn’t maybe good enough to be in a place like that, but I think if you put the effort in then you get out what you put in.

So the first month I was there I was just learning about fusion because I hadn’t done any mobiles on it, so it was just really relaxed and just trying to ease me into it which was nice. If ever I got stuck there are other PhD students there to help me out with the programming aspect of it, and as time went on I started to come to grips with what was going on. I started to feel a lot more confident and people were always quite encouraging and supportive of what I was doing so that was good.

I think the best thing I got a bit was getting real industrial experience in a research environment, especially in the sector I wanted to go into and it makes it less daunting leaving university. So I’m obviously graduating in July and I’m not really worried about leaving. I know that last year some of my friends from the year below were stressed around this time and a lot of them hadn’t sorted things out, but I had my job sort of by November because I just like the security there.

I applied for a job…a PhD in nuclear, and having a year in industry in a great nuclear lab is a good talking point in the interview. I think not many people that apply for a PhD will have one years experience in nuclear energy from a lab like Culham as well. I don’t know if it would be that easy if I didn’t have a year in industry, but I think it definitely helps and makes you a stand-out candidate to have that kind of experience.

The Physics Connection

All aspects of Chloe’s placement related directly to physics, which could be expected from a job in the nuclear sector. She used and honed many different computational skills, becoming comfortably proficient in MATLAB and Linux, undertook plenty of statistical computational analysis, and developed her personal skills of collaboration and research to create a more streamlined working environment.

The Professional Skills Stuff

Chloe started her placement not keen on giving presentations and left with the confidence that she has now to deliver them in pursuit of her PhD. She also recognised that she used to struggle to admit when she needed help, and learning to ask for and accept help was a skill that Chloe developed while working.

“Before my placement, I was very anxious about delivering presentations at University. I think this is because they were quite infrequent. However, at CCFE I was required to present and discuss my work which is something I did not have much experience of. This is a replica of what I experience now as a PhD student. I found that when I returned to University after the placement, I was more organised and better at managing my time. My problem-solving skills had also improved.”

The Company

Culham Centre for Fusion Energy is the UK’s national nuclear fusion laboratory, managing the UK fusion process, that powers the Sun into carbon-free, safe and abundant electricity.

“It was very sociable and everyone was kind of talking about what they’re doing and used to host these kind of student talks every week. So you kind of got that idea of what other people are doing and then we had obviously research group meetings and stuff. So there’s always an opportunity to ask for help if you were struggling.”

The Final Word…

Chloe felt that the best thing about her Year in Industry was the experience she gained of working in a research intensive environment. Where she was surrounded by leading experts in the field and developed significantly on a professional level. She acknowledged that the placement massively boosted her career prospects and provided a unique insight into the industry.

“When you first start University, I think it is quite easy to believe that if you achieve a 1st or a 2:1 then you will be able to secure the job you want with ease. However, in reality, employers are looking for well-rounded individuals with a range of experience outside of academia. I see a year in industry as four years of summer placements in one, so the experience and depth it will add to your CV is invaluable.”

Skills Learned;

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