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Ella Fox-Widdows

University of York

Fusion CDT PhD Training Programme
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The Big Picture

Ella takes us through her journey from being a Physics undergrad in York to being a Tokamak Physicist at Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) in Boston, with a PhD along the way!  

“I was always really keen to learn more about maths, something about how analytical it is connected nicely in my brain. And then, as I got older and did GCSEs and A levels, I realized how connected physics and maths were and how you could apply maths to learn more about the world. I originally started doing a degree in maths and physics at the University of York, but then switched to the integrated master’s programme.”

“In the first couple of years I was trying to explore different areas that I was interested in, and I always knew that I wanted my career to be something that was a mix of interesting physics and also something that was doing good for the world. Physics is great for that, you can do a lot of cool things in a variety of different ways that are a positive force. I did a medical physics placement during my second year but it wasn’t something that ignited a fire within me, and I realized, maybe this isn’t for me, which was a great learning experience. In my third year there was a plasma module and plasma science in general seemed super interesting, it’s a combination of a lot of different areas of physics I’d been studying like electromagnetism and atomic physics, molecular physics, fluid dynamics which all culminate in plasma physics and make it really interesting to study.” 

“I was enjoying my master’s project and learning new things so I applied for a PhD on the Fusion CDT programme at the University of Liverpool doing plasma diagnostics.”

The Fusion CDT is a partnership between Durham University, University of Liverpool, University of Manchester, University of Oxford, University of Sheffield and University of York. This brings together the combination of world-leading experts and world-class facilities to create an outstanding training environment for the next generation of fusion scientists. 

“I was coming to the end of my PhD, and looking for jobs in general and scouting out what the options were. I’ve been following the progress of CFS for a while and I’d met a few people who worked there through various networks and outreach I’d done throughout my PhD and everyone spoke very highly of working there. My PhD project was very similar to the role I applied for, so it was basically the right job that came along at the right time!”

“So I’m now part of the diagnostics team at CFS and I’m leading the design of 2 of the diagnostic systems. One is Langmuir Probes, which is something that was a big part of my PhD project and also the neutral gas diagnostic sensors.”

“It’s a great place to work because everyone’s really driven by this greater goal of trying to get clean energy on the grid and make this really cool technology a reality. So it’s a very inspiring place to work and a really exciting role. I also always wanted to live abroad and experience life outside of the UK for a longer period of time. So it’s definitely a dream job, that all these things I was looking for came together.”

Day to Day

Initially Ella worked remotely from the UK whilst waiting for her Visa to come through. “There were some challenges to remote work, not being able to connect as much with the team, it was always nice when I could visit on site, so I could chat with people, and experience the social aspect of work. There was also a 5 hour time difference, so I had a few hours in the morning when none of my colleagues were awake and from time to time when there’s meetings that need to happen, it would be a late one for me.”

But now Ella’s made the move over to the US: “We’ve got our campus outside of Boston and each day is really varied! There’s a lot of design work, discussing the design with team members, modelling and analysis, there’s a lot of vendor outreach and collaborations with other groups, other companies and other universities.”

“Now that I’m on site it’s great because I can nip over to someone’s desk and ask them a question or have a meeting in person which I find really motivating and productive. We also have space where we are building components and testing them. So there’s a mix of computer work and hands-on work which I’m really enjoying.”

“The company itself has really great values and culture, aiming to be a diverse and inclusive place to work which is something that I really valued. So it feels like a really nice open place to work.”

The Application Process

Ella applied via the CFS website and was contacted by a member of the HR team, and then had a call with the manager of the diagnostics team. Ella was then invited to a panel interview where she gave a presentation on her research, experience and skills.

“And then I was offered the job and started remotely with the plan of applying for visas and then coming across to the US as soon as possible. There’s a lot of international employees at CFS and especially on the diagnostics team as it’s quite a niche field of research.”

The Physics Connection

Ella found the skills she developed in her undergraduate and PhD applicable to her role, especially the plasma physics! But also more general skills such as programming analysis, organizational skills, teamworking, networking and presenting; “All those kind of things come in handy every day.”

“I’d also done a lot of outreach and communications work throughout my PhD. I was part of the Student Council of the European Fusion Education Network. I did some work for the Fusion Industry Association, helping with Fusion News and I set up my own fusion focused podcast where I was interviewing experts in fusion. So I knew what was going on in the industry and I knew who to chat to, to get advice from.”

Expectations

The role’s more wide-ranging than Ella expected, and she’s developed skills such as CAD modelling, communicating with suppliers and vendors, and setting up collaboration agreements and proposals. “It’s a lot more varied than a PhD project where you focus on your work and that’s it. There’s a lot more interfacing with other systems and chatting with many different colleagues. Which I really enjoy, I like talking with people. So it’s nice not being isolated like a PhD sometimes can feel and working with a team towards a common goal.”

“There’s lots of people at CFS who are complete experts in their field, so there is a bit of imposter syndrome and wondering whether my skills are good enough? And it’s such an ambitious project, I don’t want to be the weak link. But my team has been really supportive! Coming straight from PhD into industry is a bit scary, but it’s been great so far”.

Any Advice?

“My plan was to explore different options to find something I loved, I think if you are passionate about something, it comes across. It means you look for extracurricular opportunities in that field. And I think then, when you’re applying for jobs, it’s very clear that you’re passionate.”

“I think also something that helped me is talking with people who work in the field already, reaching out on LinkedIn and asking them questions like how did you get this role, or what do you like about your job? And the majority of people, in my experience at least, are really keen to reply, and happy to get questions like that and help you.”

“There are still ways to get involved in careers that you don’t have direct experience with because you’ve got the transferable skills. There’s internship apprenticeship options. There’s so many different roles within Fusion, whatever your background is, there’ll be a role that you could apply for”.

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