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Student View - Studying Physics at University

by YPU Admin on May 29, 2020, Comments. Tags: Physics, science, STEM, student view, and UoM

Introduction

My name is Yulia Yancheva and I am currently a third-year MPhys Physics student at the University of Manchester. The Physics course at UoM is a combination of theoretical and mathematics subjects, programming, and experimental laboratories.

How is Physics Different at Uni?

One of the main differences between university and high school is that at university, the degree is focused mainly on one topic, in my case Physics. This allows students to gain a lot of subject-specific knowledge in significant depth. For example, in Physics, we do not only learn different subjects, but we also learn how to think like physicists. This allows us to often know the answer to questions that we have not seen before just because we have enough knowledge of the basic physics laws in the world that surrounds us.

Another major difference between high school and university is that in university, students are mainly independent. This means that it is a personal choice for each student how to organise their time and make sure they are up to date with all new material. There are lectures, tutorials and workshops that help us to organise our time but we do not have a teacher who makes sure we have attended and learned the new material – it is our responsibility to do that! Everybody tries to keep up with all the new lessons because at the end of each semester we have exams where we can show what we have learned during the semester.

Physics at Manchester

I have studied a very diverse range of subjects during my university degree in Physics. For example, in my first year, I had a module on astrophysics and cosmology during which I learned about stars, planets, telescopes and the Universe in general. I also had a module on quantum physics and relativity, which was taught by Prof Brian Cox. During this module, I learned about time and space as scientific concepts as well as about black holes and even various scientific paradoxes.

Apart from the theoretical subjects, I also spend a lot of time in the experimental laboratory. For example, in my third year, I was working with graphene – this is a material that was discovered by Professor Sir Andre Geim and Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov at The University of Manchester for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. I spent four weeks in which I was investigating the electrical properties of graphene and I found the work very interesting and engaging – it felt like real research. Here is a photo of myself doing a task that was required for this experiment – I was handling ammonia and hence the safety goggles and the face mask.

At the University of Manchester, Physics students work in pairs in the laboratory. We also have lab demonstrators who introduce us to the experiments and help us if we get stuck. However, in third and fourth year, most of the time students work with their lab partners without the demonstrators being there all the time. This makes the lab experience unique – there is a lot of brainstorming going on between lab partners and it almost feels like solving a puzzle.

Going Further...


 

Selfish species: game theory and the ecosystem

Introduction

I am studying for a PhD in Statistical Physics and Complex Systems at The University of Manchester. My research studies a system of many interacting species where the population of one species can facilitate or hinder the growth of another species. This relationship is determined by a specific interaction coefficient between the species. The interaction coefficients for the relationship between every pair of species are drawn randomly from a two-dimensional Gaussian distribution, and we use the parameters of this distribution to predict how the ecosystem behaves. We can then simulate these interacting species using a computer programme to check our predictions.


In Depth…

I studied Mathematics and Physics for my undergraduate degree at The University of Manchester. I chose this degree because I enjoy understanding how the world works, and appreciate how bizarre and counter-intuitive our reality is. I had a fascination for quantum mechanics and relativity, higher dimensions, and sub-atomic particles. I really enjoyed learning about these concepts as well as being introduced to many other fascinating ideas. I enjoyed the lecture style of teaching but I also developed my ability for independent learning, I became really good at managing my own time, and absorbing information at my own pace from reading textbooks and lecture notes. The most useful skill I learned during my degree was how to computer programme, I learned how use Matlab, C++, and Python, and I learned how to write codes for simulations, data analysis, solving complicated equations, and optimization algorithms. I decided to do a PhD after my undergraduate degree because I really enjoy self-study and programming, and I am further developing these skills with new challenges every day.

I became interested in population dynamics after reading "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, where he described behavioural evolution using ideas from Game Theory. He described how an animal’s behaviour, and the behaviours of the other animals it interacts with, would determine how successful the animal would be at surviving and passing on it genes. These successful behavioural strategies would dictate how the behaviour of the population as a whole would change over time, and evolve to an Evolutionary Stable Strategy which could be understood as stable Nash equilibria. During my degree I took the opportunity to study Game Theory further by writing my second year vacation essay on the topic. I researched many areas of Game Theory and went through a short online course. I discovered how it can be applied to statistical physics, in the Ising model for ferromagnets, and really enjoyed learning about how ideas from quantum mechanics could produce Quantum Game Theory, where a player could play multiple strategies at the same time. In my fourth year I undertook a project with my current PhD supervisor on a population of individuals who had the choice of two behavioural strategies to interact with. The population evolved by the number of individuals playing the more successful strategy increasing, but this model also considered the effect of time delay, such as a gestation period in nature. I really enjoyed my project with my supervisor and through this I continued onto a PhD with him.

Going Further…

Here is a link to my supervisor’s webpage, if you are interested in my research you could look at his publications:

https://www.theory.physics.manchester.ac.uk/~galla/

Here are links to the undergraduate Mathematics and Physics courses webpages:

http://www.maths.manchester.ac.uk/

https://www.physics.manchester.ac.uk/

If you are interested in game theory, here is a brief course:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZKErrvVMaY&list=PL76B0EB6DDFC42D02

If you are interested in “The Selfish Gene” here is a brief summary of the book, chapter 12 discusses game theory:

http://old.unipr.it/arpa/defi/econlaw/SELFISH%20GENE.pdf

and the full text can be downloaded here:

https://www.zuj.edu.jo/download/the-selfish-gene-r-dawkins-1976-ww-pdf/

 

Intern Journey: From Student to Staff at the University of Manchester

by YPU Admin on November 2, 2017, Comments. Tags: internship, Physics, STEM, and Students

Introduction

My name’s Jake and I went to school in a small sleepy town in North Wales, followed by sixth form where I studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry A-levels.  After this I was accepted onto the Physics course at the University of Manchester, is one of the most exciting, friendly and liberal cities in the U.K. - a really exciting change compared to the slow pace of life in Wales!  After a jam-packed few years of study, work, fun and travel, I’ve fallen in love with Manchester and now work as a Student Recruitment and Widening Participation (SRWP) Intern at the University.

In depth…

I began university with absolutely no idea about what I wanted to do in terms of a career.  I knew that I liked science, helping people and travel, but there was no particular job that took my interest, so I decided to do an MPhys Physics degree as my science grades were good, I liked Brian Cox documentaries and the idea of academic research, as well as this Physics is a very well respected degree with broad career prospects.

I assumed that over the course of the following four years that I would have an epiphany moment – that everything would fall into place and I would exclaim ‘Eureka!  I’ve found my life’s passion!’, and start doggedly pursuing an exciting career to eventually become a world-leading researcher in an exciting and dynamic field.

To my dismay, this career revelation never occurred, and actually as my degree went on I became more and more unsure about a career in scientific research.  For my MPhys research, I investigated the effect of graphene upon bacteria, in the hope that one day graphene could be used in a new generation of antibiotics.  However, despite the amazing applications of this research I learnt that a career in research is not for me (at least not yet), as I’m not cut out for long hours in the lab and fiddling with computer codes.

But by all means doesn’t mean that my degree was a waste of time.  On the contrary, my time as a student was the best in my life – I’ve made fabulous life-long friends, gained extremely employable skills, travelled to amazing places, and my self-confidence has sky-rocketed.

One of the most important things that I’ve gained is that I’ve learnt much more about myself, and what I like and what I dislike.  I’ve discovered that I’m hugely passionate about science communication, helping people, and spreading public awareness about science, education, and social issues.  I also love working with people, using my creativity to blog and solve problems, and enjoy variety in my work.

I’ve recently began work as a Student Recruitment & Widening Participation Intern at the university and love it!  In this role, I coordinate the University’s Aspiring Student Society (UMASS), which helps people considering higher education to think about their options and gives application and career guidance.  I represent the University of Manchester at UCAS fairs, help organise Open Days, and give talks to young people to help them make more well-informed decisions about their futures.  I work with the public on a regular basis, every working hour is different and I feel proud working for such a prestigious institution for which social responsibility is one of their core values.  As term starts again soon I’m hoping to get back involved with science and LBGTQ+ outreach too!

I’ve got no idea what’ll I’ll do after my internship, but I’m sure as I carry on learning more, getting involved with more things and get to grips with the job, I’ll have a clearer idea of what my next step will be.

Going further…

http://www.umass.manchester.ac.uk/ : The University of Manchester Aspiring Students’ Society – a good resource for anyone who’s considering applying to any academic institution.

http://www.manchester.ac.uk/connect/teachers/students/secondary/widening-participation/ : The Widening Participation programmes at Manchester, which encourage students of all educational backgrounds to apply to Manchester.

http://www.manchestersciencefestival.com/ : Manchester’s hugely popular annual science festival – a great opportunity to learn about different areas of science, its importance and impact.  You can also speak to world-leading scientists!

https://manchesterstudentblogs.wordpress.com/category/jake/ : The University of Manchester’s Student Blogs.  These give a valuable insight into university life and offer tips covering all parts of student life.

 

The Giants of the Universe

by YPU Admin on June 23, 2016, Comments. Tags: Galaxies, Physics, Research, Universe, and UoM

Introduction

My name is Monique Henson and I’m currently in the second year of my PhD in Astrophysics. I finished my A-levels in Maths, Physics and Further Maths in 2010 and went on to study Physics at the University of Manchester. After my first year, I realised that wanted to focus more on the theoretical aspects of Physics, so I switched to the Physics with Theoretical Physics course. For most of my degree, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do afterwards. To help me decide, I did a few different internships during my summer holidays. I tried teaching, working for an international technology firm, and finally I tried academic research.

Before that summer project, I hadn’t thought too much about doing research. If I’m honest, I didn’t realise what a researcher does on a day-to-day basis. I now know that the day-to-day work of a researcher depends a lot on what they are researching! But all researchers are united by one thing - curiosity. Doing that summer project reminded me why I wanted to study Physics in the first place, and made me realise that I wanted to pursue it further.

I started my PhD in 2014. My research involves studying the biggest objects in the Universe that are held together by gravity - galaxy clusters. These giants are made up of thousands of galaxies. Each of those galaxies is made up of hundreds of billions of stars. Some of those stars will be just like our Sun.

In Depth

Why should we study galaxy clusters?

Despite their name, galaxy clusters aren’t just made of galaxies. They also have two other key parts - hot gas and dark matter. Most of the visible mass in galaxy clusters actually exists in between the galaxies. It takes the form of gas that is so hot it emits X-rays. The galaxies around the cluster faster than bullets, and their interaction with this hot gas causes them to rapidly evolve. By studying the galaxies in galaxy clusters, we can learn more about how galaxies change over time.

Most of the mass in clusters is actually dark matter, which is the name we give the substance that makes up most of the mass in the Universe, even though we can’t see it. It doesn’t reflect, emit or absorb light, which means that we can only detect it by looking for its effect on other things. Since galaxy clusters are so massive and around 85% of their mass is in dark matter, then that means they’re great for studying dark matter.

On top of all of that, the number of galaxy clusters in the observable Universe at a given point in time tells us both about how the Universe has expanded over time and how structure forms in the Universe. This technique is called cluster counting as it involves counting the number of clusters with a particular mass within a given volume of the sky.

[The galaxy cluster MACSJ0717. The bright points in the image are galaxies, some of which are in the cluster, whilst others are behind it. The blue-purple material is hot, X-ray emitting gas. If you looked at the cluster with just your eyes then you wouldn’t see it. Instead you need an X-ray telescope, like the Chandra telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, CXC, C. Ma, H. Ebeling and E. Barrett (University of Hawaii/IfA), et al. and STScI]

What am I trying to find out?

To use cluster counting you have to be able to measure the masses of galaxy clusters really well. It’s quite hard to figure out the mass of something just by looking at it, but there are a couple of different methods that we use. One of these is called gravitational lensing. When light passes by a massive object, such as a galaxy cluster, it can get bent around the object through gravity. When we look at clusters we see that galaxies behind the cluster can look smeared or distorted. This distortion effect is dependent on the mass of the cluster, and by measuring it we can figure out the cluster’s mass.

It’s widely thought that this technique is very accurate for measuring cluster masses. I’m testing this by using this technique on a set of model clusters ran by Dr David Barnes at the University of Manchester.

Going Further

To learn more about galaxy clusters, have a look at the website for the Chandra X-ray telescope. They have some great images of clusters and a blog with regular updates.

One Minute Astronomer has a great article on gravitational lensing here. Gravitational lensing isn’t just used to find out cluster masses; other researchers use it to find planets and to study distant supernovae.

If you’d like to stay updated with my research and outreach activities, follow me on Twitter: @monique_henson

 

Developing environmentally friendly fuel

by YPU Admin on June 25, 2015, Comments. Tags: biofuel, biotechnology, computing, electricity, enzymes, hydrogen, maths, oxygen, Physics, redox, Research, and water

Introduction

My name is Nick and I am a first year PhD student at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology. At school I studied physics, maths and computing at A-level and then went on to study physics at the University of Manchester (BSc and MSc). My PhD research involves trying to find out how the structure of redox enzymes affects their redox potential. The redox potential is an important factor that needs to be considered in the design of biofuel cells. Biofuel cells use enzymes to help produce electricity from hydrogen and oxygen, with water as a waste product.

In depth

The redox potential (E0) tells you how likely a chemical species will accept an electron. When a chemical species accepts and electron, we say it has been reduced. The more positive the redox potential, the more likely it is that a chemical species will accept an electron and be reduced. The below reaction has a positive redox potential, so a copper ion will tend to accept an electron to become a copper atom.  

Cu+  +  e-  ↔  Cu  (E0 = +0.52V)

A chemical species may have a negative redox potential. This means it is more likely to lose an electron. When a chemical species loses an electron we say is has been oxidised. The more negative the redox potential, the more likely it is that a chemical species will lose an electron and be oxidised. The below reaction has a negative redox potential, so a sodium atom will tend to lose an electron to become a sodium ion.

Na+  +  e-   ↔  Na    (E0 = -2.71V)

Enzymes are a type of biological molecule which catalyse (increase the rate of) the chemical reactions that sustain life. Redox enzymes contain a metal ion which can either be reduced or oxidised. They help control the rate of many different reactions which involve the transfer of electrons. The structure of the enzyme around the metal ion influences the redox potential of the metal ion. Below is an image of an enzyme called Azurin, which has a Cu2+ ion in its active site.  The way in which the Azurin is bound to the copper ion affects how easily it can accept an electron.

You might be familiar with the idea that electricity is the flow of charge particles. For example, electrons flow in the wires that make up the electrical devices we use. Electricity can be made in many different ways, some more environmentally friendly than others. Biofuel cells utilise enzymes to help make electricity using hydrogen and oxygen and producing water as the only waste product. The redox enzymes help transfer the electrons through the cell which generates electricity. One enzyme takes electrons from hydrogen and passes them through the cell. The other enzyme collects the electrons and then uses them to make water.

My research involves working out how the structure of the enzymes changes their redox potential. The idea is to produce a computer program that will be able to adapt the structure of an enzyme so its redox potential is perfectly tuned for use in biofuel cells. I also plan to make the enzymes and experimentally measure their redox potentials, to prove the computer program works.

Going further

Manchester Institute of Biotechnology: http://www.mib.ac.uk/

What are enzymes? http://www.chem4kids.com/files/bio_enzymes.html

What are redox reactions? http://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/higher/chemistry/reactions/redox/revision/1/

Fuel cells: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_cell

Biofuel cells: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enzymatic_biofuel_cell

Could biofuel cells be developed for use in our bodies? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-15305579