PhD student wins physics medal and overall prize at the STEM for Britain Awards

13 March 2018

PhD student Helen Parker won the Gold Award for physics as well as the overall prize of the Westminster Medal at the STEM for Britain awards for early-career researchers held in parliament yesterday.

PhD student wins physics medal and overall prize at the STEM for Britain Awards

Her prize of £2000 and a gold medal for the physics award was presented by IOP President Professor Dame Julia Higgins, while the Westminster Medal was presented by Sue Wharton, whose late husband Dr Eric Wharton established the precursor SET for Britain awards. The exhibition and awards are held annually to showcase to MPs and peers some of the best research by graduate students, postdocs and early-career lecturers.

The prizes are given for excellent research and its communication in a poster competition. From hundreds of entrants across all the sciences, the judges chose 180 to display their posters at the exhibition in Westminster, including 30 in physics, with final judging taking place on the day.

After receiving the gold award, Helen explained that she is using multispectral imaging to see bacteria in the lungs of vulnerable patients in intensive care, and is based in the Queen’s Medical Research Unit of the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. She said: “I’m extremely happy but I was surprised to have won because there is a large biological element to my work. I’ve always been interested in the interaction between government and science so I wanted an opportunity like this.”

Helen, now in the third year of her PhD following a four-year master’s at the University of Southampton, is considering a career in academia or science communication, or possibly a start-up company.

PhD student wins physics medal and overall prize at the STEM for Britain Awards

Dr Claire Burke, who received the Silver Award and a prize of £1,250 for her poster on applying techniques from astrophysics to revolutionise conservation ecology, was surprised to have won. “The competition was so fierce and there were so many good posters,” she said. Her work at Liverpool John Moores University has the potential to have a high impact on the conservation of endangered animals so she thought it was a good topic to exhibit to MPs, she said. She would encourage other early-career scientists to enter the competition. “STEM definitely needs more young and enthusiastic scientists to get involved, so if it lights a fire in you then you should do it,” she said.

PhD student wins physics medal and overall prize at the STEM for Britain Awards

Evan Sheridan, a second-year PhD student at King’s College London (KCL), won the Bronze Medal and £750 for his poster on next generation materials for smart technology applications. He is particularly focused on large-scale simulations for using vanadium oxide in smart windows. His first degree was in theoretical physics at Trinity College Dublin, which he followed with a master’s in non-equilibrium systems at KCL, and he would like to stay in academia and continue with his research. He said: “I think it’s very important for politicians to be aware of the technologies and the research that’s being done. This is a unique event and everybody makes an effort to understand one another.”

PhD student wins physics medal and overall prize at the STEM for Britain Awards

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Professor Higgins said that MPs and others viewing the posters and meeting the entrants could not fail to be impressed by the excitement, enthusiasm and broad range of research represented at the exhibition, which exemplified the strength of the country’s research base. It was also “extremely gratifying” to note that 50% of the finalists in the physics category were women, she said. Quoting from the Institute’s report The role of physics in supporting economic growth and national productivity, she said that physics-based industries accounted for 6.7% of employment in the UK, showing the huge importance of research and innovation to the economy.

PhD student wins physics medal and overall prize at the STEM for Britain Awards

Stephen Metcalfe MP, chair of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (P&SC), which sponsors the physics awards, told those taking part: “I don’t think it’s stating it too strongly to say that this is parliament’s most important communication with early-career scientists. You are the true engine room of research and development – the success of the UK in the competitive knowledge economy of the 21st century is going to depend crucially on you.”

IOP was one of the sponsors of the awards, and on the more than 20-strong judging panel were the Institute’s Vice-President (Membership) Dr Mark Telling, IOP Fellow Dr Klaus Suhling and IOP Members Dr Elizabeth Cunningham and Dr Heather Williams, as well as Dr Liz Conlon, IOP Education and Outreach Adviser in Northern Ireland.

Following Dr Wharton’s death in 2007, the P&SC, assisted by Sue Wharton, joined with IOP, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Royal Society of Biology in reviving the awards in 2009, which later became STEM for Britain.



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