My placement was at the Vulcan Petawatt Laser, part of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at Harwell Campus near Oxford. The placement was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council and lasted for a year, starting in September 2018. The laser is the most powerful in the country and is used for research into many areas including inertial confinement fusion and extreme astrophysics. The placement was split into two separate roles. The first role was working with a colleague to operate the laser to produce requested energies and pulse-lengths from the target-areas. The second role was to work on a cutting-edge research project in laser physics as a development scientist.
Because of the complexity of the laser and the hazardous environment I was working in, I was trained for three months on how to operate the laser in a safe manner. After this, I worked with another member of staff throughout the week either operating, fixing or upgrading the laser. The work was highly rewarding; not just due to the exciting science being used to produce the laser beams but also in learning about the experiments done in the target areas.
After being trained to safely work with lasers, I began working on my research project in the area of coherent combination of femtosecond laser pulses with my supervisor. The project was continuing on from previous students and I had my own lab to work in. At first it was very daunting to be working on a complex project by myself, but over time I learnt how to solve challenging problems and made several exciting advances in the technology.
When I wasn’t working on either of my main roles, I might have been performing data analysis on laser outputs, writing a genetic algorithm to help align the system, assisting with open days or many other things. I really enjoyed my time there and highly recommend learning more about the placement and the facility to anyone considering doing a placement year themselves. The staff are all incredibly friendly and always willing to help with suggestions and ideas if you ever get stuck!