Aine's profile

Aine O'Brien graduated with a Physics with Astrophysics BSc (1st class) in 2014. The interview below was taken with Aine at the end of her third year.

So - how was your time here?

aine-workshop.jpgWhen I decided to do physics at uni, I pretty much figured almost everyone would be like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, so I was really surprised when I got to Leicester and found that so many people were, in fact, socially adept… The department is honestly such a friendly place, the lecturers always have their door open when they are in, meaning that they’re always willing to help you with work. I have been to see a huge number of members of the teaching staff for help and have never been made to feel bad for doing so, despite whatever commitments they may have had. Physics degrees are never going to be easy,  - you don’t choose to do a degree where you spend 3 or 4 years staring at equations because you want to go out every night, and sleep in until 2pm everyday, - but the department does so much to help you if you put the effort in.

There are loads of rooms in the department dedicated for students to work in during the week, which sounds silly, but it means that we all work together for difficult problem sheets and during the revision period. These rooms are so useful, especially when the library is busy (which is pretty much all the time..) and it means you can go see the lecturers just down the corridor from where you’re working when you get stuck.

I’ve got to know pretty much everyone in my year, I don’t know anyone in other departments or universities that have the same atmosphere whereby all the students work together and the lecturers are so approachable, even if there are a few Sheldons about...

Any favourite courses that really stood out?

I took a third year module called Human Spaceflight, this was run by a visiting lecturer from MIT and ex NASA Astronaut, Professor Jeff Hoffman. It was a 2 week lecture course where Professor Hoffman told us about many of his experiences as an Astronaut, as well as stories from his peers in the industry; the political presures and history of the Space Race, as well as the Challenger and Columbia disasters. He was an inspiring lecturer and we were so lucky to have met him, let alone hear first-hand, what it’s like to be an astronaut.

I also thoroughly enjoyed a course in Astrobiology - ‘Life in the Universe’, this module used an interdisciplinary approach to discuss the search for extraterrestrial life. Having a general interest in science meant that I took a lot from this course, since there are many elements of geology, biology and chemistry as well as physics, involved in astrobiology. I found that this course really overlapped with my two third year projects, which both involved different areas of searching for evidence of life on Mars.

Tell us more about your two third year projects?

My main project -in the first term of third year - involved using three different electron microscopes in order to determine the mineralogical content of a Martian meteorite, ultimately finding evidence of water on the surface of Mars!

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Aine presenting her work to Col. Chris Hadfield and Sir Robert Burgess
In the second term, I was part of a group of 8 students who designed a sample return mission to Mars, working in conjunction with Airbus: Defence and Space. This project gave me unique insight into the design process in the space industry, the wide spectrum of the mission specification allowed us to each choose research areas that interested us most, meaning that we could tailor our project to our own strengths, whilst maintaining its value to the company.

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What else have you got up to during your time here?

I spent a large portion of my time on the hockey pitch! I would thoroughly recommend playing a sport at University, it’s been great to get to know students on other courses through the hockey club, it is a fairly large time commitment, since I play up to 5 days a week.

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During my last year I was the secretary for the department-based society, LUPh (Leicester University Physicists); as a member of the committee for the society, I helped organise socials and other events, such as the annual Physics Summer Ball, for fellow students. LUPh is a large society which brings together all the year groups of undergrads and even some postgrads!

There is also an additional departmental society- AstroSoc, (astronomy and rocketry society) that I was a member of, they organise observation evenings. Most recently, AstroSoc hosted the annual UKSEDS conference, which was an awesome weekend, with talks from representatives of all areas of the space industry, careers workshops and networking opportunities.

Did you have a part time job?

I managed to have two part time jobs during term time whilst at university. The department runs an ambassador system for UCAS visit days, open days and some outreach events. This has been very helpful for improving my communication skills, it’s also been great speaking to freshers who’ve said they chose to go to Leicester on the basis of my talking to them at Open Days.

I've also been a Campus Brand Manager for Teach First in my final year. I ran recruitment events and represented the charity at careers fairs. If you’re organised with your time, it is easy enough to have part time work, whilst actually having a social life and doing well in your degree!

Every year, the department hosts Space School UK and Senior Space School UK - summer schools for teenagers to give them a taste of university-life and enhance their knowledge of  astronomy and space-based subjects-. I went to Space School three times as a teenager, and now I am a member of the Senior Mentor team for the summer school. I spend two weeks every summer giving lectures, workshops and generally having an awesome time with Space School students! It’s a wonderful opportunity to pass on the more accessible parts of my astrophysics degree to younger people.

So, what next?

From September,  I will be teaching physics at Framlingham College, a boarding school in Suffolk. I was lucky enough to be given a teaching job directly from my degree, as opposed to through more traditional routes, such as a PGCE or GTP. The University careers service are all incredibly supportive and helpful when it comes to job applications, I applied for several jobs during my final year and they looked over every single one, even giving me mock interviews and assessment centres.

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