Kristin Hopley

Kristin Hopley completed her Nuffield Research Placement in 2018 at the University of Edinburgh, in the school of Physics and Astronomy. Kristin presented her project Shining a Light on Dark Matter at the Big Bang Finals. We talked to Kristin about her experience. 

Why did you apply for a Nuffield Research Placement?

I was looking for ways to expand my experience in scientific research and further my knowledge in physics, and when I saw the Nuffield Placement I realised it was the perfect opportunity. I would be able to investigate further into a topic I was interested in with the help and support of an experienced mentor, and had the opportunity to present my research at the Celebration Event once I was finished. It sounded completely alien and out of my comfort zone - and for this reason, I went for it.

What was your project about and did you know anything about the area before you started the placement?

My project was on the topic of Dark Matter, which in itself is quite unknown within the general public. All I knew about it before the project was that it was a theoretical prediction made by physicists to explain why the universe is the way it is, but nothing more. By the end of the project, I was able to describe the different models we are using to investigate it, what experiments we are performing to try and detect it and how they work, and even debate on its existence in the first place.

Was the placement what you expected it to be?

I went into the placement with no expectations and was completely open to taking opportunities when I could, which is partially why my project ended up being so unusual. It was more inspiring, interesting, and eye-opening than I could have ever imagined.

I went in assuming I was about to do a fairly simple physics experiment, and I came out with a 45-minute documentary on Dark Matter featuring interviews with noteworthy names like Nobel Prize winner Peter Higgs. The experience was incredible and it shifted my perspective on the world in many different ways - it made talking to academics seem much more accessible, it made learning the physics near the edge of human knowledge seem much more attainable, and it reassured me that leaving your comfort zone is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

How did your supervisor help you with your project?

My supervisor was the person who encouraged me to think outside the box of what a traditional project should be. He encouraged me and trusted me to contact well-known academics and meet them on my own, and was very supportive of the project as it was developed and finalised. At the same time, he pushed me to do all the hard work for myself; not helping me with any filming, editing, or creating a story from hours of footage. I think his balance of support was perfect, and I learnt a lot from doing what I did on my own.

Did you gain any new skills, both scientific and general work skills, from undertaking your placement?

I learnt a lot and gained a lot of experience in being able to communicate professionally with academics. I also learnt how to conduct a good interview - making your guest feel relaxed, getting them to speak at the right level of detail, making sure the content you’re getting is interesting and relevant. It was initially very daunting to talk to people whom I knew had vastly more experience and knowledge than I did, but through throwing myself into the deep end I became much more confident in that environment. Scientifically, my report-writing skills increased, and my ability to communicate complex ideas in concise and accessible ways was critical to the making of the film. Overall it was a great experience to grow my skill set, and I am very grateful that I had the opportunity!

Has your experience helped you to decide on a career path?

Talking to the academics and seeing their passion for science and new knowledge solidified to me that I want to stay in science. The Nuffield Placement also provided an opportunity for me to attend the Big Bang Science Fair as a finalist, where I was definitely inspired to stay in physics by some incredible projects created by my peers, and by the career stands showcasing the brilliant opportunities I had with a future in STEM.

What advice would you give to students applying for a Nuffield Research Placement?

I would say that, whatever your doubts might be about whether it will be worth it or not, you should absolutely just go for it. You never know what direction it will take you in or what it might inspire you to do. It’s also a brilliant gateway to a CREST Gold Award and to being selected as a finalist for the Big Bang science fair, both of which are incredible opportunities that will help set you above the crowd in the future. It is never a bad decision to get experience in the subject you’re interested in and meet new people in the field.

What was it like presenting your work at The Big Bang Competition?

The Big Bang Competition was a truly incredible experience. As a finalist, meeting the other finalists my age who had done brilliant projects on things like creating a cure for arthritis, creating a new molecule for purifying contaminated water and genuinely pushing the boundaries of current science was very inspiring and motivating. On top of that, the exhibits held by companies like GCHQ and Rolls Royce offered me opportunities for the future, and I was able to ask questions and get my name and face known to these organisations.

In general, being surrounded by young talented scientists all my age and all with a core interest in improving the world around us was an incredible experience, and it has opened my eyes to the kind of things we young people are capable of. I can’t recommend it enough.