Archive for the Education Category

Athena SWAN Bronze for Physics & Astronomy at Sussex

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on September 25, 2014 by telescoper

Athena Swan

Only  time for the quickest of quickies today, but I have some very good news to pass on so, without further ado, here we go. Today we learned that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has received a the Athena SWAN Bronze Award in recognition of our commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research. The Athena SWAN charter has been running since 2005, recognising the commitment of the higher education sector to address gender inequalities, tackle the unequal representation of women in science and to improve career progression for female academics.

This award has been the result of a huge effort led by Dr Kathy Romer but also involving many other members of staff in the Department and across entire  the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences generally. The Department scored at or above the national average in all key areas: student intake (UG, PGT, PGR), research staff, academic staff, REF submissions and so on. That said, the Athena SWAN process has highlighted several areas where improvements can be made, such as in the mentoring of female postdoctoral researchers, and enhanced levels of training in equality and diversity matters such as the influence of unconscious bias. We are very pleased to have received the bronze award, but there is still a very great deal to do. Many other institutions and departments have already progressed to the Silver or even Gold award, but our Bronze is at least a start!

 

 

Life, Work and Postgraduate Research

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Education with tags , , , , on September 21, 2014 by telescoper

A very busy Freshers’ Week at the University of Sussex is now behind us and lectures proper start tomorrow morning. As far as I was concerned all the Freshers’ events were superimposed on a week that was already filled with other things, some good (of which more anon), and some not so good (of which I will say nothing further).

After welcome receptions at the weekend, Freshers’ Week for me began with an induction lecture with all the new students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) or at least as many as could rouse themselves for a 10am start the day after a big welcome party. In the event, the turnout was good. I then gave another little speech at a much less formal event in the Creativity Zone (which is situated in the building occupied by MPS. I then had to dash off to a couple of meetings but when I returned a couple of hours later the party was still going, so I helped myself to a beer and rejoined the socializing.

IMG-20140915-00402

Welcome to the new students in MPS!

And so it was for the rest of the week, dominated by meetings of one sort or another including one in London, until Friday and my last formal induction task in the form of a session for new postgraduate students in MPS. Since this happened at the end of Induction Week there wasn’t much of a practical nature say to the students that they hadn’t already heard during the School-based induction sessions that preceded it, so I decided to scrap the Powerpoint I had planned to use and just give a general pep talk. Doing so was quite an interesting experience because it reminded me of the time I started my own postgraduate education, here at Sussex.

As a matter of fact it was on the corresponding day in 1985 (Sunday 22nd September) that I moved down to Brighton in advance of starting my DPhil (as Sussex doctorates were called in those days). It’s hard to believe that was 29 years ago. As it turned out, I finished my thesis within three years and stayed on here at Sussex as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astronomy Centre until 1990, whereupon I left to take up a teaching and research position at what is now Queen Mary, University of London. That was the start of a mini-tour of UK universities that ended up with me returning to Sussex last year as Head of the same school in which I started my research career.

This morning I noticed a story in the Times Higher about the loneliness and sense of isolation often faced by postgraduate research students which often leads to a crisis of confidence. I can certainly attest to that, for reasons I will try to explain below, so tried to reassure the students about it in the induction session on Friday.

The point is that a postgraduate research degree is very different from a programme of undergraduate study. For one thing, as a research student you are expected to work on your own a great deal of the time. That’s because nobody else will be doing precisely the same project so, although other students will help you out with some things, you’re not trying to solve the same problems as your peers as is the case with an undergraduate. Your supervisor will help you of course and make suggestions (of varying degrees of helpfulness), but a PhD is still a challenge that you have to meet on your own. I don’t think it is good supervisory practice to look over a research student’s shoulder all the time. It’s part of the purpose of a PhD that the student learns to go it alone. There is a balance of course, but my own supervisor was rather “hands off” and I regard that as the right way to supervise. I’ve always encouraged my own students to do things their own way rather than try to direct them too much.

That loneliness is tough in itself, but there’s also the scary fact that you do not usually know whether your problem has a solution, let alone whether you yourself can find it. There is no answer at the back of the book; if there were you would not be doing research. A good supervisor will suggest a project that he or she thinks is both interesting and feasible, but the expectation is that you will very quickly be in a position where you know more about that topic than your supervisor.

I think almost every research student goes through a phase in which they feel out of their depth. There are times when you get thoroughly stuck and you begin to think you will never crack it. Self-doubt, crisis of confidence, call it what you will, I think everyone who has done a postgraduate degree has experienced it. I certainly did. A year into my PhD I felt I was getting nowhere with the first problem I had been given to solve. All the other research students seemed much cleverer and more confident than me. Had I made a big mistake thinking I could this? I started to panic and began to think about what kind of job I should go into if I abandoned the idea of pursuing a career in research.

So why didn’t I quit? There were a number of factors, including the support and encouragement of my supervisor, staff and fellow students in the Astronomy Centre, and the fact that I loved living in Brighton, but above all it was because I knew that I would feel frustrated for the rest of my life if I didn’t see it through. I’m a bit obsessive about things like that. I can never leave a crossword unfinished either.

What happened was that after some discussion with my supervisor I shelved that first troublesome problem and tried another, much easier one. I cracked that fairly quickly and it became my first proper publication. Moreover, thinking about that other problem revealed that there was a way to finesse the difficulty I had failed to overcome in the first project. I returned to the first project and this time saw it through to completion. With my supervisor’s help that became my second paper, published in 1987.

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are general lessons. One is that if you are going to complete a research degree you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. I was talking to a well-known physicist at a meeting not long ago and he told me that when he interviews prospective physics students he asks them “Can you live without physics?”. If the answer is “yes” then he tells them not to do a PhD. It’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it kind of job being a scientist. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’d imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well. Being “stuck” on a problem is part-and-parcel of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it. I have a large stack of prize dictionaries to prove that this works!

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way. I’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research. I do think however that it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my PhD research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Time spent sitting at your desk isn’t guaranteed to be productive.

So, for what it’s worth here is my advice to new postgraduate students. Work hard. Enjoy the challenge. Listen to advice from your supervisor, but remember that the PhD is your opportunity to establish your own identity as a researcher. Above all, in the words of the Desiderata:

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

Never feel guilty about establishing a proper work-life balance. Having more than one dimension to your life is will not only improve your well-being but also make you a better researcher.

Freshers’ Week Reminiscences

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on September 13, 2014 by telescoper

So here I am again, on campus, on a Saturday, this time to attend some receptions for new students (“Freshers”) who have just arrived at the University of Sussex to start their courses. I always enjoy meeting the new intake at this time of year; we sometimes call them “The Autumn Collection”, although it’s only mid-September and definitely not autumn yet. In fact it’s very warm and sunny and summery on Falmer campus today. The  downside of these annual events is that the students look much younger every year, so every one makes me feel a lot older than the one before!

Looking through my back catalogue of blog posts I realize that this blog is six years old next week. One of my first blog posts was about  memories of my own first day at University and it seems appropriate to repeat some of it here. I notice actually that virtually all Freshers’ weeks I’ve written about over the past six years have been accompanied by fine weather. I find this kind of weather a bit spooky because it always takes me back to the time when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are about to do this year in their turn. I did it 32 years ago, getting on a train at Newcastle Central station with my bags of books and clothes. I said goodbye to my parents there. There was never any question of them taking me in the car all the way to Cambridge. It wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t have wanted them to do it anyway. After changing from the Inter City at Peterborough onto a local train, we trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge. The weather, at least in my memory, was exactly like today.

I don’t remember much about the actual journey, but I must have felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Nobody in my family had ever been to University before, let alone to Cambridge. Come to think of it, nobody from my family has done so since either. I was a bit worried about whether the course I would take in Natural Sciences would turn out to be difficult, but I think my main concern was how I would fit in generally.

I had been working between leaving school and starting my undergraduate course, so I had some money in the bank and I was also to receive a full grant. I wasn’t really worried about cash. But I hadn’t come from a posh family and didn’t really know the form. I didn’t have much experience of life outside the North East either. I’d been to London only once before going to Cambridge, and had never been abroad.

I didn’t have any posh clothes, a deficiency I thought would mark me as an outsider. I had always been grateful for having to wear a school uniform (which was bought with vouchers from the Council) because it meant that I dressed the same as the other kids at School, most of whom came from much wealthier families. But this turned out not to matter at all. Regardless of their family background, students were generally a mixture of shabby and fashionable, like they are today. Physics students in particular didn’t even bother with the fashionable bit. Although I didn’t have a proper dinner jacket for the Matriculation Dinner, held for all the new undergraduates, nobody said anything about my dark suit which I was told would be acceptable as long as it was a “lounge suit” (whatever that is).

Taking a taxi from the station, I finally arrived at Magdalene College. I waited outside, a bundle of nerves, for some time before entering the Porter’s Lodge and starting my life as a student. My name was found and ticked off and a key issued for my room in the Lutyens building. It turned out to be a large room, with a kind of screen that could be pulled across to divide the room into two, although I never actually used this contraption. There was a single bed and a kind of cupboard containing a sink and a mirror in the bit that could be hidden by the screen. The rest of the room contained a sofa, a table, a desk, and various chairs, all of them quite old but solidly made. Outside my  room, on the landing, was the gyp room, a kind of small kitchen, where I was to make countless cups of tea over the following months, although I never actually cooked anything there.

I struggled in with my bags and sat on the bed. It wasn’t at all like I had imagined. I realized that no amount of imagining would ever really have prepared me for what was going to happen at University.

I  stared at my luggage. I suddenly felt like I had landed on a strange island where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing. I’ve had that feeling ever since, but after 32 years I think I’m used to it.

Newcastle Joins the Resurgence of UK Physics

Posted in Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 17, 2014 by telescoper

I’ve posted a couple of times about how Physics seems to undergoing a considerable resurgence in popularity at undergraduate level across the United Kingdom, with e.g. Lincoln University setting up a new programme. Now there’s further evidence in that Newcastle University has now decided to re-open its Physics course for 2015 entry.

The University of Newcastle had an undergraduate course in Physics until 2004 when it decided to close it down, apparently owing to lack of demand. They did carry on doing some physics research (in nanoscience, biophysics, optics and astronomy) but not within a standalone physics department. The mid-2000s were tough for UK physics,  and many departments were on the brink at that time. Reading, for example, closed its Physics department in 2006; there is talk that they might be starting again too.

The background to the Newcastle decision is that admissions to physics departments across the country are growing at a healthy rate, a fact that could not have been imagined just ten years ago. Times were tough here at Sussex until relatively recently, but now we’re expanding on the back of increased student numbers and research successes. Indeed having just been through a very busy clearing and confirmation period at Sussex University, it is notable that its the science Schools that have generally done best.  Sussex has traditionally been viewed as basically a Liberal Arts College with some science departments; over 70% of the students here at present are not studying science subjects. With Mathematics this year overtaking English as the most popular A-level choice, this may well change the complexion of Sussex University relatively rapidly.

I’ve always felt that it’s a scandal that there are only around 40 UK “universities” with physics departments Call me old-fashioned, but I think a university without a physics department is not a university at all; it’s particularly strange that a Russell Group university such as Newcastle should not offer a physics degree. I believe in the value of physics for its own sake as well as for the numerous wider benefits it offers society in terms of new technologies and skills. Although the opening of a new physics department will create more competition for the rest of us, I think it’s a very good thing for the subject and for the Higher Education sector general.

That said, it won’t be an easy task to restart an undergraduate physics programme in Newcastle, especially if it is intended to have as large an intake as most successful existing departments (i.e. well over 100 each year). Students will be applying in late 2014 or early 2015 for entry in September 2015. The problem is that the new course won’t figure in any of the league tables on which most potential students based their choice of university. They won’t have an NSS score either. Also their courses  will probably need some time before it can be accredited by the Institute of Physics (as most UK physics courses are).

There’s a lot of ground to make up, and my guess is that it will take some years to built up a significant intake.The University bosses will therefore have to be patient and be prepared to invest heavily in this initiative until it can break even. The decision a decade ago to cut physics doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that they will be prepared to do this, but times have changed and so have the people at the helm so maybe that’s an unfair comment.

There are also difficulties on the research side (which is also vital for a proper undergraduate teaching programme), there are also difficulties. Grant funding is already spread very thin, and there is little sign of any improvement for the foreseeable future  in the “flat cash” situation we’re currently in. There’s also the stifling effect of theResearch Excellence Framework I’ve blogged about before. I don’t know whether Newcastle University intends to expand its staff numbers in Physics or just to rearrange existing staff into a new department, but if they do the former they will have to succeed against well-established competitors in an increasingly tight funding regime. A great deal of thought will have to go into deciding which areas of research to develop, especially as their main regional competitor, Durham University, is very strong in physics.

On the other hand, there are some positives, not least of which is that Newcastle is and has always been a very popular city for students (being of course the finest city in the whole world). These days funding follows students, so that could be a very powerful card if played wisely.

Anyway, these are all problems for other people to deal with. What I really wanted to do was to wish this new venture well and to congratulate Newcastle on rejoining the ranks of proper universities (i.e. ones with physics departments). Any others thinking of joining the club?

Sussex and the World Premier League of Physics

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2014 by telescoper

In the office again busy finishing off a few things before flying off for another conference (of which more anon).

Anyway, I thought I’d take a short break for a cup of tea and a go on the blog.

Today is the first day of the new Premiership season and , coincidentally, last week saw some good news about the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex in a different kind of league table.

The latest (2014) Academic Rankings of World Universities (often called the “Shanghai Rankings”) are out so, as I suspect many of my colleagues also did, I drilled down to look at the rankings of Physics departments.

Not surprisingly the top six (Berkeley, Princeton, MIT, Harvard, Caltech, & Stanford) are all based in the USA. The top British university is, also not surprisingly, Cambridge in 9th place. That’s the only UK university in the top ten for Physics. The other leading UK physics departments are: Manchester (13th), Imperial (15th), Edinburgh (20th), Durham (28th), Oxford (39th) and UCL (47th). I don’t think there will be any surprise that these all made it into the top 50 departments worldwide.

Just outside the top 50 in joint 51st place in the world is the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. For a relatively small department in a relatively small university this is a truly outstanding result. It puts the Department  clear in 8th place in the UK, ahead of Birmingham, Bristol, Leicester, Queen Mary, Nottingham, Southampton,  St Andrews, Lancaster, Glasgow, Sheffield and Warwick, all of whom made the top 200 in the world.

Incidentally, two of the other departments tied in 51st place are at Nagoya University in Japan (where I visited in January) and Copenhagen University in Denmark (where I’m going next week).

Although I have deep reservations about the usefulness of league tables, I’m not at all averse to using them as an excuse for a celebration and to help raise the profile of Physics and Astronomy at Sussex generally.  I’d therefore like to take the opportunity to offer hearty congratulations to the wonderful staff of the Department of Physics & Astronomy on their achievement. 

With the recent investments we’ve had and further plans for growth I hope over the next few years we can move even further up the rankings. Unless of course the methodology changes or we’re subect to a “random” (ie downward) fluctuation…

 

 

 

Do-It-Yourself Supernova Explosion

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 15, 2014 by telescoper

Visitors to the office of the Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex often remark upon the presence of these two objects and inquire as to their purpose:

Supernova

Since I don’t play golf and am a bit long in the tooth to be a fan of Peppa Pig, most assume that it must be for some strange astrophysical reason. I tried asking on Twitter what people think I use them for, and the most common answer was to demonstrate the relative size of the Earth and Moon. As Roy Walker would have said, “That’s a good answer, but it’s wrong”.

In fact I use the objects concerned to demonstrate what goes on when a star goes supernova.

The point is that a supernova explosion begins with gravitational collapse of the progenitor star, so why does that manifest itself as an explosion? The point is that the outer layers are blown off while the core collapses into a compact object such as a neutron star or, perhaps, a black hole.

The way to demonstrate this is first to balance the golf ball (representing the outer layers) on top of the beach ball; the air hole in the latter is a useful place to do this. You then lift the conjoined objects to a reasonable height and drop them onto the table or bench provided for such a purpose in a lecture theatre. The objects fall together under gravity until the beach ball hits the surface. You will find that the beach ball (representing the core) stops still while the golf ball (representing the outer shells) shoots upwards as most of the kinetic energy of the system is transferred to it during the bounce.

I think this is quite an effective demonstration, but I’d encourage inexperienced lecturers to note that there is a Health and Safety Issue, so it is necessary to carry out a risk assessment before attempting it. When I first did this during a lecture many years ago, I used a ball bearing rather than a golf ball and a fully-inflated and much larger beach ball instead of the more manageable (and slightly deflated) Peppa Pig one I now use. I told the students in the audience to watch carefully what happened and then dropped them as described above…

What happened in that case was that the ball bearing rocketed up so fast that it reached the ceiling and smashed into the lights above the lecturer’s bench, whereupon there was a very loud bang and I was showered with broken glass and other debris. I have to say that got the loudest round of applause I’ve ever had while lecturing, but it wasn’t exactly the effect I’d been hoping for.

But the real reason for posting today is to wish a very happy 65th birthday to supernova expert extraordinaire and occasional reader of this blog, Robert Kirshner of Harvard University, who has celebrating along with a number of my astro-chums at a conference in Australia.

Many happy returns, Bob!

Advice for Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy Students on Clearing!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 14, 2014 by telescoper

Got your A-level results? Not made your first-choice University? My advice is:

1-dont-panic

We still some have places in the School of Mathematical & Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. Whether you’re interested in Physics, Astrophysics, Astronomy or Mathematics (or even a combination of those subjects), why not just take a look at the University’s Clearing Page and give us a ring?

As a matter of fact, I’ll be around myself from 8am this morning to talk to interested students!

Click the relevant link for more information on our courses in Physics & Astronomy or for Mathematics!

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