Courtney Williams

"If you get the opportunity, apply for a Nuffield Research Placement. You'll get a unique chance to do scientific research before you even start university and have a great time knowing you're really contributing to whichever group you join."

Courtney Williams, until recently a pupil at William Farr C of E Comprehensive School near Lincoln, spent 6 weeks at the University of Sheffield in Summer 2008. Courtney is now studying Physics at Imperial College London, and was recently awarded a top prize at the EU Competition for Young Scientists (EUCYS).

How did you get involved with the Nuffield Research Placements Scheme?
In Year 11 I came across the Nuffield Research Placements website via a Google search, and as the first person in my school to get involved in the scheme (and the first physicist in my region) I organised the placement myself by contacting the physics departments that were closest to my home. In the end I spent 6 weeks working at the University of Sheffield on a project entitled 'Listening For Ghost Particles: The Acoustic Cosmic Ray Neutrino Experiment (ACoRNE)'.

ACoRNE aims to detect tiny neutral particles called neutrinos using the fact that, when they have enough energy and enter water, they give off a particular sound pulse that can be recorded and measured – ACoRNE hope to do just that using an array of hydrophones (underwater microphones) off the coast of North West Scotland, though they are also branching out into using the skills developed during this project for other purposes, such as monitoring climate change and marine mammal activity. I had two tasks:

  • to look at background noise from whales and dolphins
  • to study how a hydrophone responds to a sound pulse like the one a neutrino would produce.

What did you learn most from your placement experience?
Like most people I had a very romanticised view of scientific research, but having spent days collecting results and staring at computer screens I can confirm that it's not like I thought at all! It is still incredibly rewarding though, even when half your results are lost because you wrote a computer program slightly incorrectly!

How have you shared your placement experience with others at school?
I assisted Year 12s in applying for placements, and gave talks to parents, interested teachers and students, and wrote articles for the school paper. Outside of school, an article about my experiences was published in the local paper. I also attended the Talent Matters event in London and have had two of my own articles published in national publications.

What are you doing now, and what are your longer term plans?
I've been given an East Midlands Ignition Creative Sparks Award, which I will use to fund a project combining physics, web design and writing, creating a resource that will aim to encourage more people to choose physics. I'm currently on the Physics with Study in Europe course at Imperial College London, and hope to take advantage of opportunities to do research wherever possible.

How did your placement experience affect these plans?
The placement taught me the importance of communicating scientific ideas; though before and immediately after my placement I was heading for a career in research, now I'm hoping to go into science journalism.

How does it feel to have won the EUCYS award at the Big Bang Fair?
First of all, it was a huge surprise! The EU Contest for Young Scientists (held in Paris in September) was one of the best experiences I've had. Even if I hadn't won a prize it would have been brilliant, but I somehow managed to receive the EIROforum CERN prize. This means I'll be spending a week at CERN next summer, visiting the permanent exhibition and various departments and experiments.