The Big Picture
Germán Barrio Garrote carried out his Year in Industry at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source centre in Oxford. ISIS is a world-leading centre for research at the Science and Technology Facilities Council Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Their neutron and muon instruments give unique insights into the properties of materials on the atomic scale.
“For me, it was the actual name of the job that attracted me, beforehand I didn’t know this place existed! So when I read about it, I was, oh this is very similar to CERN but in the UK! They have their own accelerator for beam time, so I thought it’ll be pretty cool to come and work here.”
Day to Day
Germán’s role in Research and Development involved working with the Detector group looking to upgrade one of the muon instruments used at the facility. “We are looking at various different things to improve the prototype, so for example we normally wrap the component to ensure it’s light tight, so the light doesn’t escape, but I tested different reflector paints to see if we could substitute the wrapping with paint and it ended up working really well! The main advantage is that the detector is actually smaller and more standardised.”
Germán’s work forms part of the wider group’s project; “We have meetings to update the group, so what we’ve been doing, what we found out, and then normally, my manager tells me, you know, we need this, we need to test that.” Germán spends a lot of time in the lab and carrying out research and development work preparing for beam time, “because when it is our time to use the beam we need to have everything ready. And we go down to where the accelerator is and test what we’ve been working on.”
“We have an open office, we are all together, and I think they’ve done that very nicely, because if you have any doubts you can go and ask anyone, and they all help you out. So it’s a really nice atmosphere.”
Staying in student halls whilst on his placement was a great option for Germán. “They know how to work with international students, how to arrange payment, if you have any problems with your passport or whatever they know more or less how to help.” STFC put all the placement students into a social media networking group and arranged activities such as coffee roulette so students could get to know one another and find out about other areas of the organisation.
The Physics Connection
As well as the general organisational and time management skills Germán has taken from his university experience he also commented more specifically that “The lab skills, I found them quite, quite useful. From working in the labs last year I spent a lot of time in the optics lab, and this year I’m also in an optics lab! And for example, python, we did a lot of python in labs and here I’ve used it a lot to record signals, analyse the data and communicate with the prototype.”
The Learning Curve
Something that did come as a bit of a surprise; “It did mention in the job description about working with radiation and I didn’t know what that exactly meant! I actually test what I make in the lab using a radioactive source and I have to go into a specialist lab for this. It’s something I was not expecting; to handle radioactive sources! But that’s something I learned how to do here!” Germán noted the increased level of freedom when working in the lab on placement compared to the uni environment and the additional responsibility this brings with it.
Germán also feels he has developed his communication skills “We do a lot of presentations and we talk about our work and I feel like that’s helped me communicate better, especially because I’m not English. In uni you can more or less get along but here you have to develop your ideas and make sure everyone understands what you’re doing.”
The Application Process
The application process took a couple of months and after submitting Germán’s CV ISIS invited him to complete some online tests around general knowledge, comprehension, mathematical skills, and pattern recognition. This was followed by a recorded interview: “So they send you a link and they put up some questions on the screen and you have, say, 2 minutes to think about them and then answer them via video.” Following which Germán made it through to the final interview stage. “This is more in depth about the project, so they ask you more technical questions. I remember they put a graph in front of me and said how would you read this or what can you take from this? It was quite funny because I did astro physical technologies as one of my subjects last year, and one of the questions they gave me here appeared in an exam, so I was like, oh, I know this one!”
What about Nerves?
“It was the first time I did an application like this so I was quite worried if I did everything properly. I don’t know how many times I checked my CV! One thing I’m really thankful for is that at uni we have professional skills as a subject and I found that really helpful for me because I haven’t ever done an interview process like this.”
The Final Word
“One thing I would really recommend when people go on placements is like, try to do something outside work. I like to play basketball, so what I did is I found this club here in Oxford, and I played for them this year and I’ve got to know more people outside work, funnily I’ve met other Spanish people! I’ve travelled to different places to play games and see other areas.”
Germán would recommend the placement experience; “When going into physics, you don’t know exactly what to do, it’s such a broad subject. But when you come here and you have a placement, you can see ‘oh I like this technology we are using’, so I might go into this in the future, maybe do a PhD about this or try to work in the same area, or if for some reason you say, ‘oh I don’t like this’ you know that too. The placement really helps you know what you want to do, and know what subjects to choose for next year.”
As well as helping to explore physics opportunities, placements can also really help when it comes to applying to roles “I’ve been speaking to some friends who have already finished the degree, and they say, like one of the things most people want when hiring someone is actually experience of a job. So doing a placement is a really good way to get started with that, especially if you do a good job, it will open up a lot more opportunities in the future.”