Cara Nicholson

Cara completed her placement in 2016 at the University of St Andrews, Chemistry Department. She is currently studying Chemistry at the University of St Andrews. 

What was your project about?

My project was in solid state chemistry, and the title was ‘Search for new ABO4 polymorphs’. I combined elements in the solid state and then heated them to very high temperatures, before using x-ray diffraction to analyse the products. The successful products showed spontaneous and controllable electrical polarisation, making them ferroelectric. This type of chemistry is hoping to find ferroelectric polymorphs which could be developed for their eventual use in electronics.

What was the highlight/best bit of your placement?

I enjoyed learning more about chemistry and seeing a real research lab. It gave me a good insight into what a career in chemistry could be like. My favourite part, however, was speaking to my supervisor and the PhD students in the lab about how they got into chemistry, and what they wanted to do after they finished their studying and research. For me, the placement taught me more than just the small part of chemistry that I was studying.

What was the your least favourite part of the placement?

I spent quite a lot of time alone doing the experiments as they were fairly repetitive, and I didn’t enjoy that. I was also slightly overwhelmed by how much there was to understand, but my supervisor helped me a lot with this.

What is your current role? If you are currently studying, what course are you doing? Where are you studying?

I am now in the second year of a chemistry degree at the University of St Andrews, where I completed my placement.

What path did you take after finishing you NRP and how has that led you to where you are today?

After finishing my placement, I started to get more involved in STEM. I claimed a CREST Gold award for my placement, and have since become a Nuffield Ambassador, a STEM ambassador, and a Chemistry ambassador for Youth science journal. I also went back to my school last year to help teach an AH chemistry class. This helped with my application to study at St Andrews and has also helped me during my degree.

Did your Nuffield Research Placement have an effect on the choices that you made after finishing school/college/university?

I knew I wanted to study a stem subject, but I couldn’t decide between chemistry and physics. Completing my placement allowed me to see what chemistry was like at a high level, and the type of work that a chemistry degree could lead to. It also opened up other opportunities to explore these subjects more deeply. It clarified my choice to study stem and helped me to choose chemistry. My placement still helps me in my degree now, because I know the applications and the experiments behind the solid-state chemistry theories I have been taught in my lectures.

If you could give one piece of advice to Nuffield students about to start a placement what would it be?

It would be to not put too much pressure on themselves during the placement, and to speak to their supervisors and those around them about their experiences and interests as much as they can.

What would your advice be to young people thinking about a career in STEM

My advice would be to get as involved as possible in STEM activities, so they know what they like best, and to speak to people who already work in STEM to get an idea of their options.

Did you stay in touch with your supervisor? If so, please give details e.g. if you ended up going back to do some more research with them or ended up doing a PhD with them.

As much as I enjoyed my placement, I discovered that it wasn’t the type of chemistry I wanted to do in the future. My supervisor helped to put me in contact with one of his colleagues, and in my next school holiday, I spent time in a different lab, which I loved. I have since completed an internship in the second lab, studying scanning tunnelling microscopy and molecular switches. My original placement supervisor was also one of my first lecturers at university, which really helped me to settle in, as I already knew him well.