Archive for Sussex University

Awards and Rewards

Posted in Beards, Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 14, 2014 by telescoper

A surge in the polls for footballer John Brayford of Sheffield United (in the Midlands) has left my dreams of the coveted title of Beard of Spring in ruins. I’m still in second place, but with the leader on 83.7% I think I’ll shortly be writing my concession speech…

Fortunately, however my disappointment at fading into oblivion in one competition has been more than adequately offset by joy at being awarded a Prize by students from the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. You could have knocked me down with a feather (had I not been seated) when they announced my name as winner of the award for Best Expressed Research. Here’s the trophy:

award

I’m assuming that it’s solid gold, although it’s surprisingly light to carry. I’m not sure where I should store it until next year when presumably it will be handed onto someone else. It did occur to me to send it up to Newcastle United. At least that way they will have something to put in their trophy cabinet…

DSCN1446

Anyway, I’d like to thank everyone who voted for me, although I’m still not at all sure what “Best Expressed Research” actually means nor do I know what I did in particular to deserve the award. Not that any of that really matters. It’s honour enough to be working in a Department that’s part of a School where there’s such a wonderful friendly and cooperative atmosphere between staff and students. I’ve worked in some good physics departments in my time, but the Department of Sussex is completely unique both for the level of support it offers students and the fact that so many of the undergraduates are so highly motivated. Maybe that’s at least partly because there is such a close link between our teaching and research across the Department. Some people think – and some universities would have them think – that research-led teaching only happens in Russell Group institutions. In reality there’s plenty of evidence that, at least in Physics, Sussex does research-led teaching better than any of the Russell group.

Amid all the administrative jobs I have to do these days the opportunity to do a bit of teaching every now and then is the only chance I have of staying even approximately sane. I’m not sure how many other Heads of School at Sussex University do teaching – I’m told my predecessor in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences didn’t do any – but the day I have to stop teaching is the day I’ll retire. Teaching students who want to learn is much more than mere waged labour – it’s one of the most rewarding ways there is of spending your time.

Charlotte Church and Physics

Posted in Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 14, 2014 by telescoper

I just noticed an interesting news item about popular vocal artiste Charlotte Church. Apparently she is thinking about doing a degree in physics. She is quoted on the BBC Website as saying

“I just think it’s important to keep the brain active and keep educating yourself.

“I have an interest in it and I should try to follow it. It’s something I’ve been interested in for the last year or two.”

I hope she does it, as it will set an excellent example. In the article, however, she also says “I will have to do an A-level in physics and maths first though”. That’s not necessarily the case, actually. It is possible instead to opt for a physics degree programme with a Foundation year. Many universities run such programmes. We have one here at the University of Sussex but there is also one at Cardiff University, which happens to be in Charlotte Church’s home town.

These courses are specifically designed for people who didn’t do the traditional mix of A-level subjects for a Physics degree and I always recommend that students who are coming to the subject late in life give them serious consideration rather than assuming they should go via the usual A-level route. Widening participation in higher education by offering such access courses is something many universities work very hard at and do very well.

In fact, as I’ve pointed out before, that the current A-level Physics courses are part of the reason why we have so few female physics students; the fraction is a meagre 20%. That might start to change if high-profile women like Charlotte Church lead the way, but in the mean time it’s definitely worth thinking about alternatives to A-level such as those I’ve described.

In any case, and whatever Charlotte Church does decide to do in the future, I’m sure I speak on behalf of the vast majority of physicists when I express thanks to her for putting such a nice story about physics into the news!

POSTRSCRIPT: I wasn’t aware of this when I wrote the above piece, but it seems a former colleague of mine from Cardiff University, Edward Gomez helped get Charlotte Church interested in physics.

Open Day and Subject Fair

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2012 by telescoper

Today was the Postgraduate Open Day for Cardiff University, so I trooped off at lunchtime to man person the School of Physics & Astronomy stand in the Great Hall of the Students in the Students’ Union for the Subject Fair. It’s the first time I’ve ever been in the Great Hall, in fact, for no other reason than it’s for the students not the staff. Anyway, I have to say it didn’t look all that great, although at least it was warm. There’s no heating in my office right now, you see. And they provided coffee and biscuits.

Other than that it was just me, some leaflets and an uncountable infinity of Herschel Space Observatory souvenir pens sitting there for two hours. And there was lousy mobile coverage so I couldn’t even tweet. I got a bit bored, actually. I wish I’d taken my knitting. I did take a picture though…

It has to be said that a general Postgraduate Open Day like this isn’t a very effective method of recruiting postgraduate students, not in Physics and Astronomy at least. Most potential applicants come to apply by looking at web pages and/or listening to advice from people in the department where they are doing or did their first degree. People have already decided between Physics and, say, Astronomy and certainly between either of those and Sociology, so the idea of stalls competing for custom is a bit absurd.

Still, as Director of Postgraduate Studies I decided that it was good for Physics and Astronomy to show willing by maintaining a presence at such events, and if as a bonus we recruit even one promising PhD student then it’s probably worth the investment in time. The additional complication with this now is that I’m soon leaving to go to Sussex University, so I was tempted to tell visitors about opportunities there. I didn’t though. Mainly because I hardly spoke to anyone all afternoon…

The moral of this tale – if there is one – is that recruitment in different subjects is very different, so the “one size fits all” centralised approach isn’t always the right way to proceed. Schools and departments know their market better than anyone, so they need to be allowed to do their own thing at least part of the time.

I suspect this is an argument I’ll shortly be making elsewhere.