The Big Picture
Daniel started his Year in Industry placement with the STFC as an Earth Observation Data Scientist in the RAL Space division in August 2020 and was due to finish the following August, but was asked to stay on for another couple of weeks. The STFC would’ve liked Daniel to work for them for even longer than that if he didn’t have to return to university, emphasising how happy they have been with his work.
Throughout the year, Daniel has worked on multiple major projects, all revolving around the analysis of the data that’s taken from satellites orbiting the Earth. His main focus has been writing a program that has several different functions so that it can be used by different people in the team for different purposes.
“At the minute I’m looking at the relationship between ammonia and water vapour in the atmosphere, specifically in the low altitude atmosphere, as opposed to high altitude where there’s quite a lot of water vapour but not much ammonia.”
The end goal for Daniel’s work is to verify results from another group by using the data that the STFC have.
“I’ve been working on my algorithm to do the same thing that the previous set of people have done and we’re trying to add extra things that we want to see, add new filters and you know, analyse the data in our own way but also to validate that we’re getting the same thing that the other group have.”
The Application Process
Daniel found out about this placement at the 6th WRIPA Careers Fair in Birmingham and thought it sounded perfect for him as it combined space science and data science. He applied through the STFC website for his current role and went to Oxford for an assessment centre where he was given a tour of the facilities and then interviewed.
“They have three interviewers each asking about a specific topic, so I had one asking about the specific coding, the program and everything, one about general background physics and things like that, and then one asking about professional skills.”
The Learning Curve
In order to learn, Daniel took a more hands on approach. He looked at the existing code that the STFC were using and tried to pick it apart to understand how it worked, or tweaked things to see what impact the changes would have.
“There’s not always formal training on different things, sometimes it’s…They set you a piece of code to have a look and say what do you think about this? Can you get it to work? Can you understand what it is without anyone really directing you? It has comments obviously, it has descriptions, but it’s supposed to be fairly easy to understand but it just takes a little while.”
“I’ve provided quite a lot of different little utility programs to them that have been quite useful…The main program I’ve written to do all this data analysis, I’ve done it so it’s very easy to add things later on so I know that it will be in development a long time after I’ve left, so it should be quite easy to add extra bits and things to it and hopefully they find it quite useful.”
STFC is a UK government agency that carries out and funds research in the physical sciences and engineering. It focuses on supporting the development of young scientists and on research that will benefit UK citizens.
Day to Day
Daniel connects to the site at Oxford remotely to carry out his work, and first checks on any programs he had left running overnight. As well as being involved in the study around ammonia, Daniel carries out web development to contribute to the STFC’s goal of making their data more accessible and usable by anyone, and he puts in data requests to get data from different sources that the STFC don’t have direct access to.
“So those are kind of the main things I start with and then adding new things to the existing program I’ve made over the rest of the day. It’s juggling between different things. Sometimes people come and email you with questions about something or new ideas and I’ll stop what I’m doing on one projection and switch onto the other and yeah, so it’s the ease of switching between projects that I’ve had to develop over the year.”
Keeping track of the different projects and requests is something that Daniel has become better at during his time at the STFC by simply keeping a record of what work he has done when and where, which is a very valuable skill for future employment.
Daniel works in a small team across his three main areas of interest with different people. Communication is important between team members so that Daniel doesn’t book meetings about the ammonia research and the web development at the same time, and his team members ensure that Daniel doesn’t get too overwhelmed with so many different tasks from all of them.
Unlike a lot of other placement students, and even early career graduates, Daniel’s role does not require him to have regularly scheduled meetings with various team members and/or his line manager. Daniel has a meeting when he is given a new task and one when he has finished it and is ready for another, and that is it, unless he hits a roadblock and needs some help, then he will schedule a meeting with the relevant person.
“I’ve been slowly getting less nervous I think over the course of the last couple of years. I’ve just been through so many different presentations and things that I’m sort of getting used to it now.“
Preparing a lot before meetings helps Daniel to feel less nervous about the event, and likewise for presentations. He remarks that no matter how much he prepares, he will still feel nervous when the presentation rolls around, and says that it’s normal to feel nervous, you just have to accept that you will be and know that you are well prepared.
Daniel was most nervous a few weeks before starting his placement when he received an email from his line manager detailing what work he would be doing while at the STFC, as he couldn’t understand what they were asking of him at all. He expected that those tasks would be his job for the first few weeks, but they are actually things Daniel has worked on throughout his entire time at the STFC.
“I don’t think they expected me to immediately know everything straight away and that was something I had to realise once I started, that actually no, I’m not going to be brilliant at everything straight away and they’re not gonna expect that.”
The Physics Connection
During his placement, Daniel has not used much of his degree level physics in his role, but has drawn on some geometry for plotting the paths of satellites. Daniel said that there is room within his role to explore physics more, but unfortunately, there isn’t the time to slot it in.
Computer science, on the other hand, Daniel uses a lot, and he acknowledges that his understanding of programming theory and constructs was very beneficial to learning the new coding languages that he requires for his role with the STFC, particularly those pertaining to web development as he had never done that before.
“Once you know one language pretty much in and out it’s quite easy to understand how to get to another language.”
The Next Step
This placement has confirmed for Daniel that space science and data science are what he wants to do in the future, and he would recommend a Year in Industry to other students.
“It’s really good for figuring out if the industry field is the sort of thing you want to go into and I think if it isn’t then it will quite quickly become apparent, and then I’ve really really improved the skills that I want to, over the year, especially programming.”
Daniel has picked as many computational based modules as he can for his final year, so his time at the STFC will benefit his studies massively upon his return to university.