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Max Rigby-Bell

University of Leeds

Physics with Astrophysics BSc
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The Big Picture

Max takes us through his journey as an undergraduate at the University of Leeds studying physics with astrophysics, a year in industry, his Fusion CDT PhD and through to his role as a Materials Scientist at UKAEA!

“GCSE year we did a trip to Culham, and I thought that was awesome! And I suppose from there, just reading books, Wikipedia, chatting to my physics teacher who was a legend! I became interested in space, in astrophysics and that’s what led me to the degree.”

“My Year in Industry was actually with an engineering firm but the projects I was working on there included nuclear fusion and energy in general. I decided that I wanted to do a PhD so I applied for a few positions, including through the Fusion CDT. The project that most interested me was at Manchester and so that’s how I ended up there, but the academic courses were hosted by all of the 5 partner universities, so I spent a bit of time in Manchester, Liverpool, Durham, Oxford. That was good fun!”

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. 

“Towards the end of my PhD, I found out about a position that was opening through a contact at UKAEA, and jumped on it and started working part time just before I finished my PhD and I’ve been there for the last 2 years. I got lucky, the job came at the right time and it was the right place, as we were keen to move more into the countryside. The PhD got quite heavy towards the end, and then I started full time at UKAEA the day after I handed in my thesis and I was fully prepared for it to be, you know, horrendous, too soon, but it actually felt like a holiday! Having constrained hours, going home at the end of the day! I was using basically all the skills that I’d learned from my PhD, all of the experimental techniques and scientific research skills. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it certainly wasn’t as stressful as doing a PhD!”

“I suppose I sit somewhere between a scientist and an engineer, it’s mostly scientific research and material development. I think what I like the most about the job is that everyone in my department, everyone in the company is working towards something bigger and something unified. We want to make energy cheaper and more available to all. And my job is to reduce things like radioactive waste to make things safer and cheaper.  One of the selling points of fusion is that it will produce no high-level radioactive waste (compared to fission). There’s no proliferation, there’s no way of turning a reactor into a weapon or anything of that nature.”

Day to Day

“It’s quite a chaotic timetable, I have like 5 different ‘day to days’! My responsibilities involve project and programme managing, people managing as well as doing research on the ground and going to conferences, meeting manufacturers, setting up collaborations. I’ll spend at least an hour per day just trying to work through an ever-growing email list.”

“If it’s an experiment, I’ll be up in Manchester, Birmingham, Cumbria, I might be abroad using equipment. And then sort of a standard day at the office would be, I suppose, writing, reading, data analysis. Then in the lab as well – we have facilities at UKAEA…so some days I’ll be in the lab preparing materials, samples or analysing them, doing experiments.”

The Physics Connection

I wouldn’t be able to pass any of my undergraduate exams nowadays, but I’ve certainly taken away a lot of the broader skills, like writing reports, designing experiments, and stuff that prepares you for a PhD, and then the PhD is actually doing it!”

“My overall objective in my job is producing data, researching materials, developing materials to be used in fusion. So, doing an experiment, then trying to understand it and trying to apply what physics, materials, chemistry knowledge we have, so I think a fundamental basis in physics has helped me a lot.”

“I think my physics has also helped motivate me, because astrophysics is sort of the inspiration behind fusion. And that’s what I’ve always found interesting – space, so recreating that on earth is the real excitement for me.”

“Initially, I was doing very similar work to my PhD, but I’ve certainly learned a huge amount since, and I think the breadth of my knowledge about the field, about fusion materials rather than being very specific like it was during my PhD – it’s become increasingly broad now. So, it’s giving me a real insight into the industry as a whole and the opportunities that are available.”

Any Advice?

“I think part of it is just, like, meeting, talking to as many people as you can along the way, developing relationships that could then come through. We’re all a big community, so we’ll often meet up at conferences and workshops, seminars and things. So, everyone knows everyone, especially in the small niche field of nuclear materials. And working at UKAEA I’ve got to know a lot more people, including some of the big names in the field. And that’s been, I mean, it’s been great, I’m almost starstruck going to some conferences!”

“The breadth of an undergraduate gives you an idea of what’s going on at the moment, both in an academic and an industrial-commercial sense, and allows you to think about what you might potentially want to try out. And, for me at least, the Year in Industry was perfect for that, because it gave me lots of options, different things to try. I would strongly recommend a Year in Industry or any type of placement as well as just talking to people – it’s really, really beneficial. Most of my friends at university didn’t really know what they wanted to do, I didn’t either. You have to try things.”

“Placements are also quite useful for time management. When I went back to uni, I had a different sort of work ethic. I think that was really helpful. Without that I would have really struggled for my PhD as well because it’s quite a self-starting atmosphere, you’re sort of left to your own devices.”

“A PhD doesn’t mean that you have to be an academic and it doesn’t mean it closes any doors in industry…you don’t need to do a PhD either. You can do an undergraduate, you can do an apprenticeship. We have apprentice engineers who then become full-time engineers, for example.”

“It’s worth pointing out that in every kind of major step of my life I’ve taken a year out where possible! So, when I finished school I took a year out, when I finished my undergraduate I took a year out. Whether that’s going travelling or just doing something completely different. So, after my undergraduate, I just did a bit of travelling, I worked as a tutor, and I did a bit of manual labouring. I’ve always loved being hands on, building things and fixing things. So having a break from studying, from using my brain too much was nice.”

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on people to have a plan, but at the end of the day I just made decisions as and when they needed to happen, or when they’d come along. If you take advantage of all the opportunities you have, try things out, then hopefully you’ll find your way. I’ve never had, you know, a long-term plan – a love of stars and discovery, that’s broad enough I think!”

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