Archive for January 10, 2016

The Renaissance of Sussex Physics

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 10, 2016 by telescoper

I’m grateful to Darren Baskill for compiling this plot which shows the number of graduates in Physics (including Astrophysics) from the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex since 2004.


The last two columns are projections, of course, but we can be rather confident about the numbers. The increase over the last few years is predominantly a result of having  more students enter our Physics programmes, but there has also been a significant increase in progression  rates (as a consequence of excellent teaching), which is why we think the predicted numbers of graduates in 2016 and 2017 are likely to be accurate.

One reason for the recent growth was that in 2008 – a particularly low year on the above graph – the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) recognized that Physics departments in the South East were struggling to recruit sufficient numbers of students to be financially viable. This led to the formation of SEPNet, a five-year programme which resulted in an injection of cash to promote physics across the South East of England via a range of activities, including a vigorous outreach programme. This almost immediately began to increase the number of applications to do Physics at Sussex (and indeed across the SEPNet consortium), with the result that 3-4 years later the number of graduates started to climb. SEPNet-2, which started in 2013, has developed this initiative still further, with new initiatives in collaborative graduate education.

(For the record note that I took over as Head of School at the beginning of 2013. I will make no further comment…)

This increase in student numbers has generated more income for the Department, all of which is invested back into teaching, research and other activities (including more outreach!) to create a broader curriculum, more choice for students, and more teaching staff;  the number of staff in Physics & Astronomy has increased from 23 to 40 since 2013, for example.

The income generated by this expansion has allowed us to broaden our research base too. This seems an appropriate time to mention that a new research group in Materials Physics has just been established within the Department. Professor Alan Dalton from the University of Surrey will be joining the Department next month as Professor of Materials Physics, and several further appointments will follow to establish a new research activity in his area of interest.

Alan’s research interests focus on understanding the fundamental structure-property relationships in materials containing one- and two- dimensional structures such as carbon nanotubes, graphene and other layered nanomaterials. Alan is  particularly interested in developing viable applications for nano-structured organic composites (mechanical, electrical and thermal). He is also interested in the directed-assembly and self-assembly of nanostructures into functional macrostructures and more recently interfacing biological materials with synthetic inorganic and organic materials and associated applications.

I’m delighted by this development, which will not only create an entirely new research activity but also add significantly to the range of options we can offer students, as well as new opportunities for undergraduate projects and placements. It also has enormous potential to build links with other Departments, especially Chemistry (which is part of the School of Life Sciences).

To end with, I thought I would also comment on another chart that Darren produced:


Apart from showing the very high levels of achievement of our students, this provides quantitative evidence of something I had suspected for some time. Although the proportion of female Physics students overall has hovered around 23% with little change since 2004, the propotion of female students getting first class degrees is significantly higher than for male students.

So there you are. Women are better at Physics than men. Discuss.