April 1, 2021, by Dr. Meghan Gray

Two terms down, one to go: we’ve come a long way

Autumn term: check.

Spring term: check.

Time for the Easter holidays then a final push through our Summer term.  But first, a quick reflection on the academic year so far. (And what a year it’s been.)

Now I’ve been in the UK for over 20 years, and when I first arrived learned much about the culture from the highly instructive book by anthropologist Kate Fox called ‘Watching the English’. So I know that one of the cardinal rules of Britishness is The Importance of Not Being Earnest. However you can’t shake the Canadian in me…and having my Twitter timeline uplifted in recent works by the wonderful Gurdeep Pandher spreading positivity and optimism from the frozen landscape of the Yukon, I thought it would be worth highlighting some of the positive events coming out of the School of Physics and Astronomy.

(But I can’t do it all by myself — I hope that members of the School community will read to the end and make their own contributions in the comments!) 

I’m also motivated by another shared British/Canadian trait: guilt — because workload has prevented me for too long from publishing intended posts on my colleagues’ triple success in the Institute of Physics medals, and marking the first graduates from our MSc Machine Learning in Science. Those posts are now up and I encourage you to take a look. But it’s also inspired me to think about what other good news has been going on that we’re missing out learning about without casual chats in the tearoom or chance conversations in the hallway.

For example: our undergrads have been nothing short of extraordinary in the way they’ve coped with this most unusual of years. I’m starting to hear about internships won, PhD places accepted, graduate positions lined up, teacher training applications submitted. Good luck to all, including those still figuring out the next steps (don’t worry, there’s plenty of time).  It’s been fantastic to see students publishing articles about their research and wider issues in science in Physics World (Hannah, Karel, Natalie), profiled in magazines for their leadership potential (Anwulika), and appearing on the BBC with their backyard telescopes (Joel). Alumni David and Harry saw their third year project published in the American Journal of Physics (“A LEGO(TM) dynamic force “macroscope”). I know this is just the tip of the iceberg in what our students have been up to.

There’s been plenty to be proud of in the way my teaching colleagues have stepped up with innovative virtual teaching methods: fancy light boards, interactive polling, online quizzes, workshops on gather.town and breakout rooms in Teams. When we’ve not been in national lockdown, our lab staff have kept the crucial practical in-person teaching going…and have adapted experiments to be done at home when we have been.

Prof Ed Copeland gets creative with his online Principles of Dynamics lectures.


And the vital research of the School has continued with exciting developments in the fields of quantum computing, black holes, and the launch of a new spin-off brain imaging company Cerca Magnetics Limited.

Of course none of it could be done without the contributions of our postdoctoral and postgraduate colleagues. Many of our PhD students have marked the end of their time with us with a virtual viva (though for the astronomy group, our tradition of silly viva hats has carried on). One of the highlights of the year is always the Tessella postgraduate poster competition. This year we managed virtually, learning about all the interesting research going on in other groups (UoN access only) and just having the welcome chance to “mingle” (BYO snacks). Congratulations to Roan, Molly, and Oliver for their award-winning posters.

PhD poster competition winners. 1st place: Roan Haggar. 2nd place: Molly Rea. 3rd place: Oliver Amin


Next, a huge shout-out goes to PhysSoc who play such a vital role in community building. The peer mentoring scheme was more important than ever this year in helping our first years transition into a very strange university environment. I understand the Discord server is taking the place of our normal undergraduate common room, and a series of events ranging from quizzes, minecraft competitions, and seminars on the physics of beer have kept the student body connected and entertained. And congratulations to Subin & co on the launch of the PhysSoc podcast:

But it’s not all about achievements and awards. More than ever we are paying attention to wellbeing and mental health: for students and staff.  Our Wellbeing officers and personal tutors have really stepped up to check in regularly with all our students and provide both pastoral and academic support. And for all students there’s still time flex your creative muscles and be part of the #RethinkYourMind project.

soundsinspired UoN


And of course we must recognise that for many of us, just getting to this point in the year is worth celebrating (even if it feels as if by this point we are held together with metaphorical sticky tape and plasters). It’s important to  acknowledge the members of our community who have been shielding throughout the pandemic and those who have faced isolation. Likewise there are those who have had increased caring responsibilities: booking grocery deliveries for elderly parents at the other end of the country; wrangling toddlers during Teams meetings; or (speaking from personal experience) homeschooling a primary schooler in fronted adverbials in the morning before delivering a lecture on astrophysics in the afternoon.  Not to mention those who have personally been affected by COVID themselves or their families, and may still be struggling with the aftermath.

It’s important that we appreciate how tough this past year has been mentally, physically, and emotionally difficult for all of us, each in a different way. Bl**dy well done to us all for making it this far.

The list of good news above is wildly incomplete. It’s entirely based my the news that has filtered through my way through months of Teams calls and social media and personal interactions.  For example, working from home I don’t see first-hand the heroic efforts that have gone on behind the scenes by technical and support staff into making our buildings and laboratories COVID-secure so that essential research and practical teaching activities could continue. It takes a community and I’m glad to be a part of this one.

If this were an acceptance speech at the Oscars I’d be hearing music playing by this point, so I will sign off with a call to action to my fellow members of the School.

Students: do you have a friend who deserves a shout out for doing something amazing, or a member of staff you’d like to thank?

Staff: do you have a PhD student who’s published their first paper, or passed their viva? A grant or a discovery to celebrate? A tutee or a colleague who deserves recognition? 

Please add your own contributions, big or small, to the comments below.

Now I’m more than ready for a break and to come back for our third and final term.  Let the long weekend begin!



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