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Physics Blogs

In this section, students and graduates of subjects in Physics subject areas will share their experiences in UCD.  If you choose to focus your studies on one of these disciplines this will lead to a degree in one of the following subjects:

  • Physics
  • Physics with Astronomy & Space Science
  • Theoretical Physics
  • Physics, Mathematics & Education

Physics with Astronomy & Space Science graduate Lána shares her story as to why she chose DN200 Science and what it was like studying Physics with Astronomy & Space Science

 My Physics Summer Internship – The Unpredictability & Excitement of Research

This blog is written by Physics with Astronomy & Space Science student Lána Salmon. Lána took part in the UCD Physics Summer Internship Program 2016. The program is designed and aimed at undergraduate students who are interested in developing their independent Physics research abilities, while being directed and supervised by UCD Physics academics. Further details of the programme are available on the UCD School of Physics website

Science can be very unpredictable! 5 weeks into my 8 week internship as part of the UCD School of Physics Summer Internship Program, I found myself a little stuck. My project focused on Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRBs) – the most powerful electromagnetic explosions in the Universe that occur when a star collapses. Using data from the Swift and XMM Newton satellites, I was using X-Ray data to try and understand these bursts.

Using a programme called XSPEC, I was using the X-Ray data to get two things:

  • Redshift – a measure of the stretching of light as objects move away from us, making the light look ‘redder’.
  • Hydrogen Column Density – a measure of the amount of gas this light passes through on its way to us.

My results were looking a bit funny. In most of the 32 bursts I tried, the redshift and column densities calculated by XSPEC were higher than the real values.

I can’t deny that I felt lost at this point, but a chat over lunch to the other 15 interns – from UCD, Trinity, DCU and even France – made me feel a little less alone. A quick call to my supervisor – Dr. Antonio Martin Carrillo – gave me some new ideas. Having been taught by him before, I knew the internship with him was going to be challenging but also fun. His enthusiasm for astrophysics is infectious!

Antonio directed me to some papers to explain this. They claimed that dust and gas around the collapsed star complicates the results, or maybe the GRBs weren’t bright enough.

But Antonio also suggested that fixing the Hydrogen Column Density to a fixed value could help. I fixed this and obtained new redshifts. Low and behold, these were much closer to the real redshifts!

One thing I’ve learned from this internship is that in science you can never be too sure. I double checked my errors and plotted contour plots to see the distribution of my errors.

I then tried to see how this method works with brighter GRBs. I found that the redshift changes by only a small amount when the GRB is brighter. So the brightness of the GRB can’t be the reason for the wrong redshift calculated earlier! There must be a physical reason the redshift was wrong.

Maybe it’s the gas around the star, or the gas in our galaxy. Antonio came up with another idea on our last day – maybe the column density changes with time, therefore we can’t fix it to one value. That’s one of the exciting things about research, there are so many possibilities!

With one week left to go, I had to start preparing for the poster competition. I found it hard to condense all of these results onto one poster, but I did it! On our last day, myself and the 16 other interns gathered in the physics common room to be quizzed on our 8 weeks. 3 judges walked around and spoke to all of us, and it was very fulfilling to be able to discuss my poster with other astrophysicists to get their insights and advice. 

The judges remarked that the standard of the posters was very high – that they would be acceptable at an international conference. They found it very difficult to pick a winner and were in awe that we were only undergraduates. It was nice to hear such lovely comments after all our hard work.

To my surprise, I won the poster competition! I think overall this internship showed me that a career in research can be exciting and unpredictable – at times frustrating – and a collaborative effort. Antonio was more than helpful throughout the whole 8 weeks – I have to thank him for passing on his enthusiasm and giving me the chance to try a career in research.

I look forward to exhibiting my poster at the Irish National Astronomy Meeting in UCD in September and getting to discuss my results with even more astrophysicists from all over Ireland.

I would like to thank the UCD School of Physics for their support of this program. I had an amazing 8 weeks among fantastic students and researchers. Since I now have to begin to think about my future plans, this internship has pushed me towards applying for a Research Masters. I look forward to this journey ahead!

 This blog is written by Physics with Astronomy & Space Science student Lána Salmon.

Before attending the 2016 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, I asked myself – why a conference for women? After getting support from UCD School of Physics to attend the 4 day annual conference in Oxford University, I walked into a room of 100 Undergraduates, researchers, industry workers and academics at the forefront of physics. As the only one attending from UCD, I was nervous and excited to meet women with a common interest – physics.

Our first mixer was held in Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford – the first women’s college in Oxford. The old dining halls and architecture were just like Hogwarts. Although overwhelming we all instantly got talking- about our courses, Universities, favourite coding languages and much more. It wasn’t long before I realised the importance of a conference for women – and the conference hadn’t even begun yet!

An early start on day 2 began with a welcome lecture from the organiser of the conference, Professor Daniela Bortoletto. A professor at the University of Oxford and member of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN, she asked us to keep asking ourselves one question ‘Why a conference for women?’. As it turns out only 8% of Physics Professors in the UK are women. This conference is aimed at encouraging women in physics and getting a glimpse into the life of a woman in physics.

With this in our minds we headed to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories. These state funded labs are situated on a huge campus filled with building after building of curiosity-led research. RAL deals with 1/10 of the data from CERN and houses the Central Laser Facility where supernovae are recreated using lasers.

We were introduced to a panel of women, all of whom work at RAL, and heard about their different backgrounds and jobs – from particle accelerator supervisors to space mission leaders. They told us about the internships and supports available to us such as the Daphne Jackson Trust, which allows funding for women who return to STEM after having children.

They gave us advice on choosing PhDs – consider at both the subject and the supervisor. They also introduced a topic which would be of central importance to the conference – Impostor Syndrome. This is an experience felt by many women of feeling incompetent and not worthy of their positions. They told us about their coping strategies – to continually remind yourself of how hard you have worked, and have a good work-life balance.

We were lucky enough to have a tour of the Neutron and Muon Accelerator at RAL. It is used as a microscope for condensed matter and nanomaterials research, and to test the effect of solar neutrinos on electronics. After leaving RAL, I had a new outlook on what a future in physics could be like  – not just University research, but real applied experiments.

Day 3 of the conference was a day of talks and panels. We heard from a variety of  speakers such as Professor Haida Lang. Haida began as a researcher in Astrophysics looking at the expansion of the Universe. She used this knowledge to fuel her career change to Archaeology. She now uses telescopes and x-ray techniques to image and conserve art. Haida made me see that physics can be applied to many areas and that a career change is never too late.

Lastly we had a panel from a variety of physics graduates who went on to become teachers, business analysts, medical physicists, science communicators and many more. We got the opportunity to ask them about their journeys and experiences. Possibly the quote of the conference came from Professor Amanda Cooper-Sarkar – she told us of how she couldn’t marry someone who didn’t have a mutual appreciation for Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. I think she summed up why all of the women at this conference got along so well – our love and enthusiasm for physics.

Our evening consisted of a banquet dinner and then Café Scientifique – which turned out to be like speed dating except with physics researchers. We got to speak to people who helped discover the Higgs Boson, Astronomers and Laser Physicists. Asking them for advice and hearing their stories was inspiring.

The last day of the conference began with a tour of the Oxford Laboratories. I got to see Professor Bortoletto’s lab, where she is building the next Silicon detector for the Large Hadron Collider.  We had to get into suits because the detectors are so sensitive to dust and dirt.

At the closing remarks Professor Bortoletto reminded us of the beginning of the conference. Why a conference for women? I think that we all knew the answer. 4 days of getting to know amazing women and learning from researchers, industry workers and academics inspired me more than I can explain. It became clear to me that things may not always go to plan but that physics is a fast changing and exciting industry where it is possible for women to lead and support one another.

Throughout these lectures and activities I got to know some amazing women from all over the world. The girls from Trinity College were very welcoming to me, being the only girl from UCD, and I am glad to say we became good friends. I made connections with people who will no doubt be leaders in the physics industry in the future, and who I will continue to keep in touch with.

I left this conference with a new outlook on physics, women in physics and the future. You can never plan for what is going to happen, but there are always people going through the same. The physics community is a welcoming and exciting community, and this conference showed me that being involved in it is a rewarding and fun experience. And lastly, I made connections that I hope I will keep throughout my time in physics, wherever it will take me.

I would like to thank UCD School of Physics for supporting this trip and to the organisers and attendees of the conference. I hope to have many more experiences like this in the future and would encourage women in physics to apply next year and exceed your own expectations!

  Physics student Lána Salmon describes how she overcame problems with Maths in first year.

On the first day of first year I found my way to my first lecture having only gotten lost twice along the way. The class was called  ‘Applied Maths: Mechanics and Methods’. It was a whole new experience for me – I had to get to know the 60 strangers around me, but also get to know this new kind of maths I had never experienced before. It was exciting and daunting. Our lecturer, Dr Conor Sweeney, had so much enthusiasm and energy it was hard not to feel excited about what was to come!


After the first few lectures of Applied Maths we had our first tutorial. A tutorial is like a problem solving class – we found ourselves sitting around tables in groups of 8-10, solving problems and asking questions. It was a completely new way of learning maths – interactive, applied, real. I had high hopes for this new way of  problem solving.

In this tutorial I began to notice something – people around me were catching onto the maths quicker than me, able to answer questions with ease. I began to get worried – I thought I wasn’t able for this level of maths, that I would fall behind. 

Maths and Physics were my worst subjects in the Leaving Cert. So entering UCD Science focusing on Maths and Physics may seem like a strange choice. But they were the subjects I enjoyed most, and the ones I was determined to work hard on. I wanted to know more about the world, the Universe and how it all works. To do that I needed to know the maths behind it all. I was enthusiastic to learn these things and that’s what drove me.


But now I was surrounded by people who were catching onto the maths quicker. My confidence sunk. I found myself re-learning my Leaving Cert maths, writing pages upon pages of notes. I spent hours more on assignments than others.

I found out that Applied Maths was a Leaving Cert subject that most people in the class had taken. My school didn’t offer Applied Maths and to be honest I’d never heard of it.

A bit of weight had been taken off my shoulders – these people were more practiced in this kind of maths than me, it makes sense that they were more able for it. I didn’t feel any less pressure though – I still had to work harder to keep up. I think it was then that I realised that I could ask for help – a lesson that has stuck with me to this day.

UCD has a Maths Support Centre – a place where you can go to clear up any problems you may be having with certain topics or sections of your classwork. Between the Maths Support Centre, our tutor and our lecturer, I got some extra help and things slowly began to make more sense.

I think in those few weeks I began to learn how I study best, and also how my learning strategy is different to other peoples. I found out that I’m a slow learner and it may take a while for a subject to make complete sense to me. Making detailed notes and step by step problem solving guides is the best way for me to study.


In many ways the Applied Maths class lay the groundwork for my future maths learning. I’m not the best at maths and I can’t say that I’m entirely confident with it, but I know that with hard work and the support that UCD has given me I can continually work on my maths ability. It is a skill to be practiced, and I find myself falling in and out of practice sometimes but always trying my best.

A lot of people find maths daunting and want to avoid it. But like learning a language, it is a skill to be practiced and used. While some may catch onto maths quicker than others, with continued practice you improve and begin to unlock the tools you need –  to explore the Universe,  understand the stock markets,  predict the weather, analyse statistics, engineer the next technologies and much much more.


As I write this blog, it is 15 days until we depart for Tenerife. 4 years of hard work has led up to this point, and needless to say I am both excited and nervous! Students in the Physics with Astronomy and Space Science degree get the unique opportunity to choose from 2 final year projects : the Space Mission Design or the Observing Field Trip. Each brings a different type of challenge and an intense 5 day trip to Tenerife.

The Space Mission Design field trip involves teams made up of students from 3 Universities, tasked with designing their own mission. The teams are only told what kind of mission to build once they get to Tenerife, therefore the students must prepare for all types of missions – gamma-ray, X-ray etc. Building this mission will involve the design of the satellite, it’s acquisition of data and assessing the launch of the satellite.

The Observing Field Trip allows students to use an 80cm optical telescope in Teide Observatory in Tenerife to study an astronomical source of their choice. This telescope, the IAC80, is on a mountain 2500m high which means we get the best view of the cosmos. Students are then tasked with picking an object to observe and analyse, and they must justify the scientific reasons for observing this object. The trip involves staying up all night like a real astronomer!

The preparation for these trips really began during our third year labs. For the observing lab, we analysed data that was taken by students on the trip, e.g. a galaxy. It was exciting to use real data, and it gave me an idea of the kind of science you can do with an optical telescope. The mission design lab involved studying gamma ray detectors and how they work. I was challenged by how technical it was – the inner workings of these satellites is incredibly interesting.

I had enjoyed both labs and learned a huge deal from each. However, the observing lab was what interested me most. The idea of choosing your favourite object and getting the opportunity to stay up all night and obtain data no one has ever obtained is exciting. My mind was made up!

We hit the ground running in January as preparations began. Myself and 3 of my classmates have booked our flights to Tenerife over our 2 week midterm, and we will be accompanied by our lecturer Dr. Antonio Martin-Carrillo. Having ran this trip 5 times previously, Antonio knows the telescope and the possible projects very well.

We were first tasked with choosing something to observe. This, to me, seemed like an easy task – everything in the night sky is interesting! From galaxies to nebulae, exoplanets and asteroids, the list is (literally) endless. However I found that I was interested in so many objects that I couldn’t make my mind up! After 2 weeks of extensive research of many scientific papers, I found a really interesting source.

I have chosen to observe an eclipsing binary system called HW Virginis. This is a system of 2 stars orbiting around each other in such a way that one eclipses the other. Looking at the light increasing and decreasing from this system can determine the mass, size and temperature of the stars. However, HW Vir has an additional feature – it is believed there are 2 exoplanets orbiting around the system. I hope to add to the observations of this system already obtained and see if current models for the exoplanets fit the observations.

There is a real emphasis on justifying the reasons for observing your chosen object. We will get access to a real working telescope, and we must use our time wisely. So we gave a presentation to the UCD Space Science group proposing our observations and analysis – there was a lot to think about! How long will I observe for, how will I analyse the data I get and what are the results that I am aiming for?

Now we are given 2 weeks to write up a proper scientific proposal, like ones that researchers write to get observing time on the most ground-breaking telescopes and satellites. The analysis and the detail is tough, but I am lucky that I have picked a source that I am really interested in. Dr. Martin-Carrillo is really supportive and we all know we can go to him for any help.

Unlike a normal module with lectures and assignments, this trip is real time science. It may be challenging, and real science can be very unpredictable, but it is always exciting and often rewarding. I am incredibly lucky to be given this opportunity and look forward to writing another blog after the trip!

Lána Salmon, UCD Physics with Astronomy and Space Science Student

  Following on from her post “Preparing for My Observing Field Trip“, final-year Physics with Astronomy & Space Science student Lána Salmon provides her experiences at Teide Observatory as part of the Astronomy Field Trip module

Arriving into sunny Tenerife on a Saturday afternoon, we took a few minutes to soak up the warmth before ascending 2500m up Mount Teide. Myself and 3 other Physics with Astronomy and Space Science final year students ventured to Teide Observatory, Tenerife for 5 nights with our lecturer Dr. Antonio Martin-Carrillo. Our final year projects hinge on the observations of our chosen objects using the 80cm IAC80 optical telescope.

Astronomers hope and pray for clear skies, and Teide Observatory is so high up that it is usually above the clouds. Unfortunately, as we ascended Mount Teide it became clear that the weather conditions weren’t optimal. There was freshly fallen snow on the mountain. You could really tell how high up you were as the buildings at sea level looked so small and it was a little harder to breathe as you walked around.

Unfortunately it snowed heavily on our first and second nights, meaning we couldn’t observe. During these nights we learned how to use the telescope and got a tour of the telescopes at Teide Observatory from the support astronomer. What amazed me was the number of telescopes and the amount of science going on in each – everything from measuring the remnants of the Big Bang to the third largest solar telescope in the world. Being in such an exciting place of astronomical research was really amazing.

Regardless of weather, we had a schedule for each day:

  • 1pm: Wake up for lunch (or breakfast, depending on how you look at it!)
  • 2-5pm: Free time – I usually took pictures  or went for a walk (or nap!)
  • 5pm: Meet at the telescope to take calibration images and schedule who would observe at what times that night.
  • 7pm: Dinner
  • 8pm: Start observations
  • 8am: Watch the sunrise and go to bed!

With 4 hours sleep I found myself very tired but a combination of the excitement of being in such a remarkable place, the freezing cold outside and sugar kept me going.

We were blessed with clear skies for our third, fourth and fifth nights and finally got our first glimpse of the clear sky. I have never seen so many stars! No patch of the sky was empty, and constellations like Orion and the Pleiades were so bright. Although it was freezing outside(-3 degrees!), I spent half an hour looking at the stars and letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. I got my first glimpse of the Milky Way, and it did not disappoint! Those views really showed me why I love astronomy, and why I have waited 4 years dreaming of this trip.

After dinner we quickly opened the dome while the skies were clear and began to observe. Each of us observed a different object – an interacting galaxy, a comet, exoplanet transit and binary star system. The four of us worked as a team in the telescope operations room, making sure to check that the images weren’t blurred and that the telescope was tracking the object across the sky. This was stressful – we were dealing with a very complicated piece of equipment and we needed to get everything up and running quickly in case the clouds came back. This was real hands-on experience and I was continually learning. Each time the exhaustion hit me I ventured outside to the cold to have a look at the Milky way, or the rising moon, or to sit in the silence and look at all the stars. The sunrise was the perfect end to a long but exciting night. Seeing the sun rise above the clouds below me was unlike any sunrise I’ve ever seen. Even though I was ready to collapse I found it hard to go asleep after seeing something so amazing.

Although the first 2 nights were disheartening and frustrating, we all got to observe in the end. The whole experience of using a real telescope to conduct our own research is an opportunity I will never forget. I learned a huge amount – how to operate a telescope, how to work in a team and the frustrating but exciting nature of optical astronomy. I found it difficult to settle back into normal life after such excitement, but I am inspired and enthusiastic to work on the data that I obtained at the observatory and write my thesis. I am currently analysing my data, and learning more and more each day. The real hands-on nature of science, and particularly astrophysics, is one of the reasons why I am passionate about it, and I am so grateful for this amazing opportunity. As my degree is coming to an end, I am looking back over all the work I have done and how it has all culminated with this trip. It is a rewarding end to 4 years of hard work and it exceeded every expectation.

  Physics with Astronomy & Space Science graduate Lána Salmon describes fitting in at UCD Science and how her undergraduate degree experience changed her perception of scientists 

When I tell people that I study physics, they usually mention Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory or Einstein. Before I entered first year in UCD Science, my impression of scientists made me think that I was going to be different. I was scared that I wouldn’t fit in.

I am no Sheldon Cooper, nor am I an Albert Einstein – things don’t come to me naturally and I can struggle with maths. I am also a woman and I don’t think I had any image of a woman scientist to compare myself to before going to college. I remember the night before my first day in UCD Science I was wondering whether I will fit in, and what kind of people I will meet in my course. Will it be a room full of whiz kids and antisocial geniuses? As I sat down to our welcome lecture, I looked around at my new classmates and all of my preconceptions were proved to be wrong.

A room full of first year science students turned out to be a room full of normal, varied people. The people I met during Orientation Week and throughout my degree turned out to be the most diverse group of people you could imagine. I thought that scientists must all be the same, but I was proven wrong. In my class there was a hip-hop dancing theoretical physicist, a wind-surfing microbiologist and a rock climbing chemist, amongst many others. The people in my peer mentor group and in my classes were so fun and easy to get to know.

Sitting in a room with hundreds of new faces was scary but once I met my peer mentor group during orientation I felt a bit more at ease. My peer mentor, a second year physics student, showed me and 10 other new students around and helped us get to know people. It turned out that the 10 students in my peer mentor group were also in most of my lectures, so it was nice to see some familiar faces during the first week of lectures. One of the girls in my peer mentor group, and the first person I spoke to on the first day of college, ended up being in my class all the way through my degree. We did our summer internship together and now we’re beginning our PhDs together.

I was terrified that I would find it hard to get to know people but fitting in was much easier than I thought. The students in UCD Science are a tight knit group because science students have a few things in common – they are enthusiastic and passionate about their chosen subject and they are outgoing and social. The UCD Science societies are a great place to meet people and getting involved with these societies can introduce you to people in your class – for example I met a lot of people in my class at UCD Physics Society events like the Freshers pizza night and our trip to CERN in Geneva.

I think if you had asked me in first year what my final year class would look like, I wouldn’t have imagined the 5 of us in the Physics with Astronomy and Space Science class. We don’t fit the stereotypes, but that’s because the stereotypes are wrong. The diversity of the lecturers, tutors and students in UCD Science is what makes it an exciting and dynamic place to learn. If we were all Sheldons, UCD Science would be boring and predictable. It is the different personalities that make scientists unique and inspiring. Anyone can be a scientist and that’s why UCD Science is full of a diverse mix of people.

  Irish Research Council Government of Ireland & UCD Space Science Postgraduate Scholar Lána Salmon writes about a new age of gravitational wave astronomy and her excitement at starting her PhD…

130 million years ago, 2 neutron stars collided near a galaxy called NGC4993. This collision created gravitational waves, which travelled through the universe, reached earth and were detected on August 17th 2017, at the start of my PhD in the UCD Space Science group. A new age of astrophysics was born.

Gravitational waves were first detected in 2015. Einstein predicted, as part of his general theory of relativity, that when heavy bodies such as black holes or neutron stars accelerate, they create a disturbance which stretches space and time and travels at the speed of light. These waves only move space a tiny fraction – a ruler 13km long would only be distorted by the width of an atom. Therefore, the most sensitive detectors ever built are used to detect these waves. These are the LIGO-Virgo interferometers – a team of 3 detectors containing long arms, along which a laser is reflected off mirrors. The gravitational waves affect the length of the arms, therefore distorting the laser signals. Any outside movement, even a car passing by, must be taken into account. We cannot see collisions of black holes as there is no matter to emit light, however it is thought that the collision of neutron stars could be detected by telescopes here on earth. The world has waited for LIGO-Virgo to detect colliding neutron stars so we can begin the search for the light from these collisions.

After my summer internship in the UCD Space Science group, I decided that I would love nothing more than to pursue a career in research. The excitement of delving into data, never before seen by anyone else from state of the art telescopes and satellites, is exhilarating. In August 2016, I met with my supervisors, Professor Lorraine Hanlon and Dr Antonio Martin-Carrillo to discuss potential PhD projects but settled on one that involves continuing the work I began during my internship on Gamma-Ray Bursts, but also pushes the limits to a ground-breaking and exciting topic – Gravitational Wave astrophysics. We applied to the Irish Research Council for funding.

My project aims to search for the visible part of a gravitational wave using UCD’s own Watcher telescope in South Africa. My supervisors warned me of the risks of a project like this – we may never detect the optical counterpart to Gravitational Wave signals. But science is about taking risks, so we proposed the project and after 4 months of waiting, we received the news that I was awarded a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship to pursue my PhD.

I was excited and nervous to begin my PhD – I knew there would be a period of a few months to get up to date with Gravitational Wave research so far and to get acclimatised to the research way of life. This quiet acclimatisation was interrupted on the 17th of August, when gravitational waves detected by LIGO Virgo were confirmed to be caused by the merger of neutron stars. Bingo (or Eureka?)! The event we have been waiting for had happened – now all we had to do was search for any visible signs of this gravitational wave event. Telescopes all over the world were searching for this.

A Gamma-Ray Burst was detected by NASAs Fermi telescope around 1 second after the gravitational wave event was detected near galaxy NGC4993. To follow up, the Boyden Telescope located near Watcher in South Africa, pointed towards this event. Over the next few days, we observed this decaying speck of light. My supervisors were working on the data from this telescope. On a Monday afternoon, they called me into a meeting. I had 24 hours to analyse images taken 4 days after the gravitational wave event. Any result that I got from this data would be included in a very influential paper to be submitted to one of the most prestigious scientific journals, Nature. Needless to say, that was a sleepless night. I scoured these images for signs of the optical counterpart to the Gravitational wave and measured the brightness of the event. This measurement was then included in the paper submitted to Nature.

This paper details the analysis of the light from this event and reveals ground-breaking results. Not only does it suggest that merging neutron stars can create an electromagnetic counterpart which can be detected, but it also sheds light on the processes that occur in a neutron star merger. The detected light can be modelled by a kilonova. When neutron stars merge, the neutrons ejected in the collision undergo radioactive decay, releasing a huge amount of energy. This energy is called a kilonova and is expected to be detectable by telescopes here on earth.

The paper was accepted to be published in Nature on the 16th of October and we were ordered to keep our mouths shut until then. That was easier said than done, when such exciting science was sitting there, ready to be released to the public! In the meantime, the Nobel prize for Physics was awarded to Kip Thorne, Barry Barish and Rainer Weiss for ‘decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves’. Gravitational wave astrophysics continues to get more and more exciting and I’m feeling very lucky to be starting research in an area which has so many exciting prospects.

Now what? I’m currently writing code for the Watcher telescope to search for these gravitational wave counterparts in the future. I am incredibly excited for the world to see our paper and for future discoveries. The beginning of my PhD has exceeded every expectation. I have always dreamed of being a published scientist – of conducting new and exciting research for the world to see. Every day is exhilarating and I am feeling incredibly lucky to be supported by the Irish Research Council, my amazingly supportive supervisors and UCD.

Links to papers :

 UCD Physics with Astronomy & Space Science student Rachel Dunwoody writes the first in a series of posts about her internship experience helping to build the I-LOFAR radio telescope in Birr. This is the first of a series of 4 posts which will cover the 10-week internship in Birr building the telescope.

Kevin Flanagan and I are the two third year UCD Physics with Astronomy and Space Science students that are helping to build the I-LOFAR radio telescope in Birr over the summer. This is the first of a series of blogs and it will discuss the initial two weeks of our internship. LOFAR, standing for Low Frequency Array, is an international network of radio telescopes.

The core is in the Netherlands and there are 11 international stations across Europe. The Irish LOFAR station is the 12th International station built and gives Irish researchers and students the opportunity to be involved in state-of-the-art Astrophysics. This includes projects on solar physics, space weather, pulsars, big bang cosmology and cosmic rays to name a few.

An optical telescope looks at objects in space in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum (400nm – 700nm), whereas a radio telescope looks at at longer wavelengths, from millimetres to hundreds of meters. An optical telescope will have a system of lens’ and mirrors to magnify the object that can be viewed using an eyepiece or camera. A radio telescope receives signals via one or many antennae which need to be processed to produce an image or spectrum of the observed field of view. For Ireland, a radio telescope is advantageous as the radio waves detected are not obstructed by clouds and observations can be made easily during the day as well as at night. During the day the Sun means that the optical waves from distant objects are often not detected as the Sun is much brighter.

I’ll admit I was nervous when I was first offered the internship as it had been advertised as being predominantly manual labour rather than a research-based project. I have no claim to strength and no construction skills but it was such a unique opportunity, I had to take it. In reality, the major factor that influenced me to accept the position was Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the physicist from Northern Ireland that discovered pulsars. During my attendance of the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in Oxford, I asked Dame Burnell about her experience in building a radio telescope when she was a student. She convinced me to accept the internship by explaining how beneficial it is to learn how to build the instruments you use as a physicist as it gives you a better understanding of how they work. She also warned me to bring rain gear as building a radio telescope in Ireland was never going to be a dry and sunny experience. Thankfully, I listened to her advice!

Now I can tell you taking rain gear was an excellent idea. On the first day, we had to complete a Safe Pass course with SOLAS. Safe Pass is a one-day course for construction workers to highlight safety awareness on site. After this and the manual handling course I am more aware of the machinery on the construction site and ensure that I am always wearing my hi-vis jacket, hard hat and steel toed boots.

At the time, the four hours learning how to lift objects seemed a little excessive  but after all the lifting of palettes, plywood sheets and boxes of various sizes onsite, it turned out to be very useful.

Initially, we had to get all the cables for each of the 96 HBAs (High Band Antennas) and 96 LBAs (Low Band Antennas) laid out from the field to the container.  The information from these antennas are sent to the Netherlands for processing and storage. Each antenna required two cables that were either 85m, 115m or 135m long. These cables had to be laid out carefully in deep trenches that were dug out by excavators. This was so no kinks occurred which would inhibit signals being passed along them once the telescope is in operation. In week one we laid the HBA cables. This was during a heatwave (for Ireland anyway) so layers of factor 50+ sun cream were needed which made the dust stick to us. The cabling was completed by Friday before the rain of the weekend and the cables covered in sand to protect from any falling rocks and debris.

All in all everyone was proud of the productivity of the first week. In the second week, the LBA cabling began, but the lashing rain made this cabling a much more miserable affair. The trenches collapsed easily from us brushing against the walls. Standing too near the edge could cause a mini cave in of the trench wall which was treacherous for the exposed cables.

However, with everyone working together filling in sand as we went along and monitoring the walls of the trenches, we were finished by the end of week two. Another unexpected issue with the cabling was the influence of the local wildlife. One morning, six gnawed cables were discovered and the surrounding hoof prints indicated that the red deer decided the cables looked like a nice snack. Many attempts were made to deter the deer with noisy cannons and by placing plastic poles around the exposed cables. Now there is a tall fence so hopefully there won’t be any more chewed equipment!

As part of the internship we are provided with accommodation in Highpark House. The walk to the construction site only takes about 25 minutes and with a Tesco just  5 minutes away last minute cereal and chocolate buying is very easy.

This is my first experience living away from home, one house with 17 students is certainly a busy place. Finding room in the one fridge is always a challenge. In the evenings, we are all pretty tired from the hectic day on site and more often than not end up in the sitting room playing a card or board game and relaxing. On one of the clear nights, Alberto from DCU set up his telescope and we all observed Jupiter with its gas clouds and four moons. Next week, we will describe how we started building the HBAs and Kevin will keep you up to date on our progress!

Read the next three parts of our I-LOFAR blogs at www.myucdblog.com/tag/i-lofar/

 UUCD Physics with Astronomy & Space Science student Kevin Flanagan follows on from Rachel Dunwoody’s first post in a series covering their internship experience helping to build the I-LOFAR radio telescope in Birr. 

This summer I’m fortunate enough to be part of the team which is helping to build the I-LOFAR (Irish-LOFAR) radio telescope in Birr, Offaly along with fellow UCD student Rachel Dunwoody. In Rachel’s first blog, she talked about how we laid the cables in the ground which will link the HBA and LBA antennae to the ILT container. I’m going to be talking about the next step in the operation, the construction of the HBA tiles. LOFAR is a large radio telescope located primarily in the Netherlands, but which has expanded to include stations in many countries across Europe, now including Ireland. The interesting thing about the construction of the I-LOFAR telescope is that it is largely carried out by students, under the supervision of Dr. Peter Gallagher and Dr. Joe McCauley from Trinity College, along with Hans and Zabet, two experienced supervisors who have each already helped to build 50 LOFAR stations!

I decided to apply for this internship largely due to the fact that it seemed so different to anything else I could have done this summer. It’s a very rare opportunity to be able to work on the construction of a large scale telescope such as this, which is in fact Ireland’s first since the famous Leviathan telescope was constructed on the same grounds of Birr Castle in the 1840s. I felt that it would help to give me a proper understanding of the work that goes into building such large scale telescopes. Telescopes like these are learnt about in class and the basics of their operation is theoretically understood, but chances to see their real inner workings and the practicalities of their operation and construction are few and far between.

The LOFAR telescope doesn’t look like what most people might imagine, it’s not a big radio dish like many radio telescopes of the past. It’s actually an array of antennae which each detect radio waves. There are two telescopes technically, one which works at higher frequencies (HBA) and another which works at lower frequencies (LBA). Combined the telescopes take up an area about the size of a football pitch.

The HBA was the first to be made. It consists of 96 tiles, each of which are constructed separately by teams of 3 to 6 people inside a large tent on the construction site. There are a number of steps to be carried out in creating the tiles, which are actually composed mainly of polystyrene, used due to its transparency to radio waves and low cost. It creates a structure for the antennae to stand in position and detect the radio waves without interference from the structure. A plastic container is first laid out, and a wire mesh, which is actually a mirror for radio waves, is placed inside, covering the bottom of the container. On top of this, a 4 x 4 grid is constructed with polystyrene. Each square of the grid is designed to hold a dipole antenna.

However before the antennae are placed inside, cables must be wound through the grid to connect each antenna to two summators (which basically collect all the information received by the tile).

Two cables are sourced from each square, due to the fact that each antenna receives two polarisations of radio signals, which basically means that they detect waves that oscillate along both the x and y axis. This means there are 32 cables winding through each tile. Winding the cables in such a fashion that the path they take is neither too long nor too short is an art in and of itself.

Once the cables are connected to the summators, the dipole antennae which we construct, which are triangular pieces of metal in a cylindrical polystyrene structure, are placed into each square. Receiver cards, which amplify the signal received by the antenna, are then placed in special slots in the polystyrene structure for each antenna and are connected to the antennae.

After this the tile is tested by a computer programme to ensure that all components are in working order. The tile is then covered with some remarkably strong polystyrene lids, strong enough that several people can stand on them. They can supposedly hold over a thousand kilograms each! This doesn’t mean that all the polystyrene is indestructible however. It’s actually very easy to break other pieces with a trailing leg as you step into the tile, so care must be taken and spare pieces are definitely required.

Before we started building the tiles, our supervisor Hans told us that the record for the most number of HBA tiles created in one day was held by Poland, who made 8 tiles in one day in 2015. Naturally, we all wanted to beat this record, not so much for the sake of getting the telescope built more quickly, but really just to beat Poland. So that’s what we did, on two consecutive days! After many days of honing our tile building skills, one day we managed to build 10 and a half tiles, and the next day, after starting work an hour early at 8am, we built 11 tiles. The Usain Bolt of HBA tile building they call us (okay not really).

After we complete each tile, it’s loaded onto a platform which is carried to the field by a transporter. The summators are then connected to cables which we previously laid in the ground, which connect the tiles to the ILT container, where the data is collected and then sent to the main LOFAR hub in The Netherlands.

It’s amazing to see the HBA come together as the tiles build up on the field. It’s really fulfilling to be able to see all of our work lead to the completion of the telescope! In the next blog, Rachel will give an insight into the experience that we had during a typical day of the internship!

Read the other three parts of our I-LOFAR blogs at www.myucdblog.com/tag/i-lofar/

 UCD Physics with Astronomy & Space Science student Rachel Dunwoody writes the third in our series covering the construction of the I-LOFAR radio telescope in Birr.

In the last blog, Kevin explained how we built the HBAs (High Band Antennas) which was our focus for a few weeks down in Birr. As well as building the HBAs, they had to be laid out on the field. This blog will set out a typical day during the internship as part of the HBA deployment team.

7.20 am

Time to wake up (after a 20 minute snooze) and eat breakfast which was the only meal we had to prepare in Birr.

8.25 am

Our working day starts at 9:00 am but everyone aimed to be on-site from 8:50 am so we tried to leave the house at this time. We had to sign in and get our PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Aside from the mandatory hard hat, hi vis and steel toed boots, there was often a need for a layer of either sun cream or waterproofs.

9.00 am

Once everyone was set for the day, there was a brief delegation of jobs and then we were set loose onto the site. One week, myself and Megan Weston from TCD were assigned the job of making the mirrors for the HBAs and helping with the deployment of the antennas. This was my favourite job as we got to spend time in the tent and outdoors. On sunny days, it became fairly sticky in the tent so it was great to escape to the breezy field. However, for the showery weather we weren’t stuck outside for the entire day. It was the best of both worlds.

9.00 am – 11.00 am

First we deployed 2 – 3 HBAs that had been completed the day before. The HBA tile had to be pushed on to the platform that sat on the prongs of a forklift. Kevin and I were part of the team that built the platform. Then 4 poles with sides that opened outward were placed into the tile which would lift the tile using the inner walls. Bungees from these poles were attached to the outer black sheet that held all the contents of the tile using clips.

Sean, one of the Conneely builders, would then drive it over and lay it onto the raised field. Megan and I would run around to meet the antenna. A harness was attached to an excavator. We ensured that the centre of the harness was centred on the HBA and then chains were attached so the tile could be lifted. Four of us would then walk the tile SLOWLY to the correct position in the field. A little manoeuvring was often needed to get the alignment precise. While it was being lowered, someone had to feed the two cables laid out in week one into the HBA through holes in the ground mat and connect them to the summation boards. This could be difficult as the mirror or black bag could move while the tile was being transported meaning that the small hole for the cable could be blocked. Once this was complete, the tile had to be covered using a top bag. Once the bag was in place atop the HBA, ‘’S’’ hooks on the bags were hooked into loops attached to steel anchors that had been drilled into the ground.

11.00 am – 12.50 pm

The mirrors for the HBAs were 5m x 5m grids to reflect radio waves of a long wavelength. Making the mirrors for the HBA required a handheld metal cutting machine. We had to learn how to cut along the mesh so it had a smooth edge that wouldn’t puncture the ground bags. The mesh was rolled out until the marker was reached, then cut. Once this was completed that part of the mirror had to be rotated and then another segment of the same size had to be cut and rotated. The two segments were aligned so that one square overlapped. These were twisted together using Hans’ magical tool – no one knew what to call it. Hans was one of the ASTRON  supervisors that helped us during the build. We always tried to have at least two mirrors ready so the HBA building wouldn’t be held up.

12.50 pm – 1.50 pm

Lunch time! We would all sign out and walk up to the café for our well-earned bottle of cold Ballygowan water, bit of fruit and freshly made sandwich or wrap. On a sunny day this would inevitably be followed by an ice cream from the café with competition over who got the largest!

2.00 pm

Back on-site, signed in and equipment on for more deploying of the HBAs interspersed with mirror making for myself and Meg. We would also help making the components of the HBA tiles that Kevin discussed in his last blog.

5.00 pm

This was the cut-off time for deploying HBAs as the builders went home. At this point Megan and I would ensure we had an ample number of mirrors for the next day and would often hop into a HBA to help finish up the tile before the day’s work was done.

6.00 pm

Once the tiles were finished up, the tent cleaned out and rubbish brought up to the shed, it was time to head home for a hot dinner and much needed showers.

8.00 pm

The evening was most often spent in the sitting room with guitars, games and sometimes a movie. For the girls of the house, smores and some colouring was part of an average evening, as well as spider catching… One night there was 5 in my room!

Being part of this project was a unique and rewarding experience and I’m very grateful to have been chosen as a member of the team. In the last instalment of the I-LOFAR blogs, Kevin will tell you all about the making of the LBAs and the switching on ceremony in Birr that marked the end of our part in the I-LOFAR story.

Read the other three parts of our I-LOFAR blogs at www.myucdblog.com/tag/i-lofar/

 UCD Physics with Astronomy & Space Science student Kevin Flanagan writes the final blog covering the construction of the I-LOFAR telescope…

Following on from Rachel’s blog about A Day in the Life of an Intern, I’m going to talk about the construction of the LBA and the end of the project. With the construction of the HBA completed, it was time for us to move on to our next task. This was the construction of the second part of the telescope; the LBA, which detects radio waves of a lower frequency than the HBA. The LBA perhaps seems a little stranger than the HBA, as instead of comprising of straightforward rows and columns of antennae, the LBA consists of antennae which are seemingly randomly placed around the LBA field. Some of the grids for the antennae even overlap! There’s no apparent structure or order to where each antenna is placed. Another obvious difference is the lack of polystyrene, which after hearing countless claims from the other students about dreaming of polystyrene, was probably a good thing.

Construction of the LBA was a less arduous task than the construction of the HBA. The LBA tiles were constructed out on the field, so we said goodbye to our large tent in which the HBA tiles were created. This took away our main source of shelter whenever it rained, but we survived by retreating to the nearby Rosse observatory instead, outside which a gazebo could be put up. The LBA consists of 96 LBA tiles, each made up of a number of components. There’s the metal grid, which acts as a radio wave mirror, on top of which stands a hollow vertical pole, through which the cables previously laid in the ground rise up. On top of this pole is a pre-amplifier to which the cables connect, and from which the active element which actually detects the radio waves comes out. This active element consists of 4 insulated wires which each stretch halfway from the pre-amplifier at the top of the tile to one of the four corners of the metal grid. The bottom half of each length is made up of string for two corners and stretchable rubber for the other two, which give the pole a small amount of give to move in extreme weather conditions without the components snapping.

In order to stop plants and weeds growing on the field, plastic sheets were placed under each metal grid, and in the spaces between the tiles, geotextile material was laid down. On top of the geotextile material, gravel was placed. Of all the jobs that were done during the 10 weeks, gravelling was one of the toughest. Piles of gravel were dumped on the field by the builders using their transporters, and it was left to us to disperse the gravel across the field using wheelbarrows, shovels and rakes. Not exactly the type of job you might expect you’d be doing when applying for an internship to build a radio telescope, but it needed to be done! As the telescope was more or less finished by the time we were laying out all the gravel, it became a bit of a running joke that we’d be put out to do some gravelling just to give us something to do if there were no other obvious jobs to be done. Nonetheless, we did it to the best of our abilities and the LBA field looked well by the end. Dr. Peter Gallagher, the man in charge of the project, said that he thought it was the best looking LOFAR telescope of them all, and although this could be akin to a parent thinking their child is the prettiest or handsomest in their class, he could be right.

A fun thing we did as the end of the project neared is set up an exhibition on I-LOFAR in a pavilion on the grounds of Birr Castle. Some of the more artistically inclined interns assisted in designing posters for the exhibition and others (including me) helped to set up the exhibition itself. We tried to reflect the look of the telescope in the design of the exhibition, using wire grids to place posters on, which hung from the wall on thick metal wires. The practicalities of actually setting up the exhibition and getting the posters hanging proved more difficult than expected but we managed it eventually after several trips to the local hardware shop Fayles. It was a nice feature to have for people visiting the castle to allow them to learn about I-LOFAR and the history of astronomy that the castle has.

The official turning on of the telescope took place on July 27th, right at the end of the internship. Minister John Halligan attended along with the CEO of Eir, who sponsored the telescope, Lord Rosse, who is the owner of Birr Castle, and many other important people. The event was even featured on the news, where Rachel could be seen front and centre in the crowd with me briefly seen in the background. During the opening ceremony it started pouring rain, so it was a good thing we had stayed on site late the night before to put up a giant tent! (In fact we had put the tent together during the first week of the project in a different location. Moving it from the original location to the site of the opening ceremony in more or less one piece was entertaining to say the least) Following this we were invited into Birr Castle by Lord and Lady Rosse. There we were shown a 6 minute preview of the RTE documentary that’s being made about the telescope, which is due to air this year. We were all very impressed by this, and found it funny seeing the time-lapse of the construction site included, with all of us scampering like hi-vis ants around the site.  Later in the day, we had dinner in Dooly’s Hotel, where we were joined by George Miley, an Irish physicist who wrote the original paper putting forward the idea of LOFAR! It was great to have him present on the day of the Irish LOFAR station officially opening. We finished off the night with some joke prizes being given out to the build team, by the build team. Many running jokes were referenced.

It felt quite strange leaving Birr once everything was finished. I had grown very used to travelling down to Birr on Sunday evenings and living in the house with all the other students. When I visited the site afterwards with my family it felt weird to be on the site but to not have to be doing work. I felt like I still had a duty to be working on something to help to get the site prepared. Overall it was a great experience, and one I’ll definitely remember in years to come. It’s not every day you get to help to construct a giant telescope!

Read the first three parts of our I-LOFAR blogs at www.myucdblog.com/tag/i-lofar/

 UCD Physics with Astronomy & Space Science student Fiona Gallagher explains her experiences on her 6-week summer traineeship in Prague…

The summer following my second year at UCD I was lucky enough to spend 6 weeks working in a scientific institute in Prague. This opportunity came in the form of an IAESTE Traineeship.

IAESTE (International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience…thank God for acronyms) is a global network that organises paid work experience abroad for students in technical and scientific disciplines. Following an interview in UCD with the IAESTE Ireland committee I was selected for an internship in the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague.

I was initially nervous to accept the position due to the fact that my major is physics, not chemistry. However, my concerns were addressed after some correspondence with my supervisor where he explained my work would be within a physical chemistry research group and would involve computational modelling of molecular properties which sounded pretty cool to me. Thankfully I would not need to handle delicate glassware and chemicals. (I was having flashbacks to leaving cert chemistry labs. So many shattered pipettes…)

Upon arrival in Prague I was met at the airport by an IAESTE Czech Republic committee member who settled my nerves and told me all about Prague and what I needed to know. Accommodation was organised for me in a student dorm near the metro line that brought me to my workplace. Within the first few days I had met other trainees from around the world living in the same dorm, including an engineering student from Norway who happened to work in the same institute as I did. Having her familiar face around my place of work helped me to settle in, even though we were not assigned to the same research group. It was also a perk having somebody to keep me awake during the 8am morning commute.

My first day was nerve-wracking as I met my supervisor and group and got shown around the state-of-the-art labs and facilities. Being honest, at first I felt wholly out of my depth as an undergraduate among PhD and Masters students. This feeling soon dissipated as I got to know everyone at a barbecue during my first week. My colleagues were mainly Czech and Slovakian researchers but they all spoke fluent English which made things a lot easier.

As for the actual work side of things, it was all pretty daunting at the start as I got to grips with the unfamiliar programs and software environments. I had no previous experience with the Linux command line which I needed to use to get anything to run! But after a few days of practice and some help from my supervisor I was running computations on basic molecules and felt a lot more confident.

Over the course of my traineeship I eventually worked my way up to larger organic molecules whose spectroscopic properties were being actively studied by the group. I compared and discussed my various computationally modelled spectra with those obtained experimentally by other scientists and we could then see which methods of computation worked best. Discussing my work with other researchers was rewarding and a confidence boost in my ability to do science!

I had weekends off work so I had the chance to travel with the other IAESTE trainees to different cities including Vienna and Dresden. A highlight for me was 3 days of camping and canoeing down the Vltava river in southern Czech Republic where I met some great people but also got awful sunburn… but it was worth it. I enjoyed plenty of traditional food and even got a taste for some Czech beers despite always hating the taste of beer back home.

Overall, I was delighted to get the chance to experience a new country and culture while also gaining valuable experience working in a scientific institute. It gave me an insight into what it would be like to work in research after my degree and now I think it is something I would happily consider doing. I would encourage anyone to take an internship if the opportunity presents itself because it’s such an eye-opening experience.

Current UCD Biology, Mathematics & Education student, Emily Lewanowski-Breen, describes her experience of attending an international conference as an undergraduate student

This summer, I had the opportunity to attend the GIREP-ICPE-EPEC 2017 International Conference, which was hosted by Dublin City University from 2 July to 7 July. The theme of this conference was “bridging research and practice in physics teaching and learning”. Whilst I am studying to become a Maths and Biology teacher as part of the Science and Maths Education in UCD, I felt it would be beneficial for me to gain insight into the teaching and learning of physics since I will also be qualified to teach Junior Cert Science. Additionally, I thought it would be a great experience to discover more about the world of research as it is my dream to one day pursue a PhD in maths education.

However, I will admit that I was both nervous and excited about the idea of attending my first conference as I didn’t really know what to expect. How will the conference be structured? What if I don’t understand the presentations? Will I be the only undergraduate student there? These are a few of the questions that came to mind as I made my way to DCU on the first morning of the conference. However, despite my initial concerns, it turned out to be an incredible experience and I really enjoyed every minute of it.

So back to my first question- “how will the conference be structured?” Well, each day actually followed a similar format. The mornings began with a one-hour ‘plenary session’ in the Helix at DCU, whereby a researcher or academic spoke about their work in the field of physics and science education. I particularly enjoyed the talk by Dr Paul van Kampen from DCU on “the teacher as a young professional” as I could really relate to the points he discussed. For example, he spoke about the importance of encouraging active learning in the classroom, which is something that is central to the Science and Maths Education programme in UCD. In fact, we always strive to make our lessons as student-centred and engaging as possible through the incorporation of groupwork and questioning. We even trial or discuss our lessons with one another during our education lectures and provide constructive feedback, which I find really helpful.

This being said, I also enjoyed the talk presented by Dr Bethany R. Wilcox from Colorado School of Mines on the use of interactive techniques to encourage student participation in lectures as it was interesting to see how other students learn at third level. I was particularly fascinated by the multi-solution problems she discussed as it is something that I hope to incorporate in my own teaching.

These plenary talks were followed by the ‘parallel sessions’, which consisted of a series of 20-minute oral presentations that took place at the same time but in separate rooms. There were around eight sessions taking place at any one time so the hard part was trying to decide which one to go to! Thankfully, the conference programme had detailed descriptions of each of the sessions, which made it a lot easier to plan out my day.

This brings me to my second question – “What if I don’t understand the presentations?” Well, I am delighted to say that each of the talks and presentations were actually very accessible, which was great considering that I am not from a physics background. In fact, I learned so much over the course of the week and even got a lot of ideas and inspiration for my own teaching. I particularly enjoyed learning about multidisciplinary activities, which are essentially activities that incorporate more than one area of science, thereby developing students’ problem-solving skills. For example, they had a physics worksheet on electricity but it had a biology context, which was something I had never seen before, but now hope to incorporate in my own science lessons. I also enjoyed the presentation by Dr Shane Bergin from UCD on the impact that informal learning environments have on students’ science identity as it was a very engaging session and it was great to learn more about Irish initiatives such as ‘City of Physics’ and ‘Quavers to Quadratics’.

However, I was particularly intrigued by the flipped classroom model, whereby students watch videos of lessons at home, allowing class time to be devoted to discussions and activities. I had heard of this teaching approach before but hadn’t realised the potential impact it can have on students’ learning, so it was interesting to learn more about it during the parallel sessions. Nevertheless, I was also delighted that a lot of the ideas and concepts we learn about in the Science and Maths Education programme in UCD were actually discussed during the conference because not only did it allow me to feel more engaged in the sessions, but it made me realise how far I have already come as a pre-service teacher. The discussions on the different types of knowledge required by science teachers, for example, really resonated with me given that we constantly reflect on the development of our own knowledge for teaching as part of our degree.

So now to answer my final question- yes, I was the only undergraduate student at the conference but this didn’t bother me in the slightest because everyone was so friendly and welcoming. In fact, I have come to realise that conferences are great for networking, even for undergraduate students. It was just such an honour to meet researchers, academics, and teachers from all around the world; everywhere from Brazil and Colorado to Sweden and Australia. I was particularly fascinated to hear how the Irish education system and teacher training programmes compare to other countries and was delighted to share my own experience of the Science and Maths Education programme in UCD. Some of the people I met were actually really impressed by the level of collaboration and team-work within my degree and even asked me for advice on how they could encourage it within their own teacher training programmes…so that was pretty cool! In fact, meeting new people was perhaps one of my favourite aspects of the conference because I enjoyed hearing about their experiences and research interests and was glad that I could contribute my own ideas.

Overall, the GIREP-ICPE-EPEC Conference was a very enriching and worthwhile experience and I would like to thank Dr Shane Bergin for inviting me to attend the event. I was truly inspired by the people I met and their dedication to improving the teaching and learning of physics and science across all levels of education. I definitely gained a lot from the experience and feel more prepared to teach physics at Junior Cert level as part of my upcoming fourth-year placement. In fact, I would highly recommend other undergraduate students to attend conferences because not only do they provide you with the opportunity to meet researchers at the forefront of their fields, but they also allow you to discover what a career in research might entail. You never know, maybe you will be just as inspired as I was - after all, undergraduates are the researchers of the future.

  Lána Salmon attended Higher Options when she was in 6th Year & has now completed her undergraduate degree. These are her top tips on making the most of Higher Options…

Higher Options is a great opportunity to ask questions,  find out more about the options available to you and speak to people in different courses. However it can be easy to get carried away with the crowds and hundreds of stands. Here’s the top 5 things I wish I had done:

  1. Get there early:  When I went to Higher Options, I had never experienced early morning Dublin traffic. It was a disaster, and we ended up getting to the RDS late. It is definitely worth planning your day in advance to the most of your day there! Get in there early and start straight away.
  1. Questions, Questions: Have a look at the list of stands, pinpoint the colleges you’ve been considering and don’t be shy! My quest for the day was to find out which Science courses would allow me to do Physics and Maths – and nothing else! Even if you think you have no questions or queries, there’s always going to be a few things on your mind. They don’t have to be specific questions – maybe you’d like to know more about college life, accommodation, or sports facilities. You never know, the answers could end up making your mind up for you!

A little tip : If you cant decide between different courses or colleges, try asking the same questions to the different stands. Now is the perfect chance to compare the different colleges or courses you like to one another. It could end up showing you which course or college is more suited to you and your interests

  1. Go to a talk: Have a look at the timetable of talks on each day. There is something for everyone, and even if you’ve missed one, wander into the hall where the talks are held. I guarantee you won't find yourself stuck in a boring talk. I went to the talk on “Working in Science” and it really showed me what kind of careers lie beyond a Science course.
  1. Don’t just follow your friends: Within the crowds of the RDS hall it can be easy to follow your friends around and go to the stands they want to see. Make sure that you get what you want out of the day – speak to the colleges you want to speak to, not just the ones your friends are speaking to. I wandered off on my own and spoke to people at the Institute of Physics, and other stands that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise! Wander around on your own for a while and meet up with your friends after. You’ll cater more to your own interests and learn a lot more.
  1. Get the prospectuses you need (and free stuff!): There can be a lot of college guides, prospectuses and information packs given out on the day. Take the ones you need – don’t find yourself bogged down with heavy prospectuses you won't look at. I unfortunately took too many prospectuses and ended up carrying them around Dublin city for the rest of the day – only to throw most of them out! Bring a pen and paper to take down any information you get – but you’ll probably get enough free pens and paper to last you a lifetime (not to mention highlighters and rulers).

Higher Options can be a busy, overwhelming experience, but if you plan and prepare well you will get a huge amount out of it. Just by looking at the list of college stands and talks will give you an idea of what you can do for the day. Don’t hold back with your questions. When else will you get the opportunity to have all the colleges together in one room, all for your benefit. Make the most of it and enjoy it!

Lana Salmon, UCD Physics with Astronomy and Space Science Graduate

UCD College of Science

Room E1.09/E2.09 UCD O'Brien Centre for Science, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
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