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2023 IOP Apprentice Award

Saskia Burke for continued excellence in metrology: from underpinning radiopharmaceutical delivery, to winning funding to run her own research into the half-life of silicon-32 by mass spectrometry, improving climate change modelling. 

Saskia Burke

Saskia Burke started her three-year metrology apprenticeship journey in dimensional metrology at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) as an essential worker during the Covid-19 pandemic, calibrating stage micrometres. These calibrate optical systems with eyepiece graticule patterns were essential for manufacturing ventilators. In her next rotation, mass metrology, Burke aided the optimisation of the Kibble balance for the redefinition of the kilogram, an SI unit whose definition had remained the same for 130 years. She researched and reported on outgassing rates, including recommendations on how to reduce measurement uncertainty. Burke’s final rotation was nuclear metrology, providing international traceability to the Becquerel.

Applying skills picked up throughout her apprenticeship, she quickly became established within the group. She provided impurity checks for fluorine-18 (a cancer diagnosis radiopharmaceutical) and helped produce and certificate radionuclide standards that underpin many sectors, including medicine, energy and the environment. Additionally, Burke assisted in uranium-232 standardisation, enabling global supply of technetium-99m, reaching 30 million cancer patients annually. She obtained funding in response to a highly competitive NPL competition to research measuring silicon-32 by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, aiming to improve half-life data for climate change modelling. Burke led the bid, pitching her presentation, budget, plan and risk assessment to the senior executives at NPL.

She takes a balanced approach to her scientific output, communicating in a way that surpasses her cohort regarding public engagement. Completing numerous promotional videos, physical and digital events, she is an inspirational figure and role model, actively engaging with the next generation of STEM professionals. Her passion for promoting apprenticeships and women in science was showcased in case studies by the government (for National Apprentice Week) and the Science Museum’s Technician’s gallery. Teachers describe Burke as a tenacious learner; able to adapt and excel in diverse subjects, showing drive and professionalism. She is organized, and excels in providing effective solutions. Her apprenticeship portfolio was one of the most comprehensive submitted and well above the level 3 requirement; now used as an excellent reference of ‘what good looks like’. Without a doubt, Burke has become a great example of how a young apprentice can be a high achiever, seeking the most out of experiences, and taking pride in helping her cohort to also succeed. Recognizing this, her peers awarded her the first NPL Glazebrook Apprentice Award, something presented to the best apprentice of the graduating cohort. Burke has a great future in science, and the apprenticeship will always be the bedrock of that career.