My Favourite Physics Memory

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

My Favourite Physics Memory - Mental health, grades and the power of believing in yourself

The summer of 2018, Sierra Nevada, Spain.

I mean, this one is easy, but also hard. There have been so many ups and downs in my physics degree but I do have one memory which has been my best one of not only my career in physics. But my life.

"...there was talk of publishing my work"

The summer after my third year. Without a doubt, the most challenging year of my life. I don't want to go deep into this, but let's just say I struggled with my mental health and money to get by, so I worked a ridiculous number of shifts to pay rent, failed to seek help for my mental health and thus failed all of my modules of my first semester of my third year. Yep. Oh, and if you don't average 55% in your third year, they don't let you continue on to do your masters (this is an integrated course so it might vary depending on the uni!) So yes, a very sad time for me. With the existing pressures on me mentally and financially, there was now an even bigger burden of not only 'passing' 55%, but now I actually had to make up for the fails. So I needed to average 80% or something ridiculous just to pass. Anyway, cut a long story short. It was a hard year.

Hang on - WAIT, this is supposed to be your favourite memory? This is just sad..

OK OK yes, and there's a but...

I worked incredibly hard the following semester, and although it was super stressful, and there were times when I really didn't think I could do it, I did. I got through.

"I mean, the chance to actually go to a telescope and take data?"

During this time, I also met Alex, and he helped me believe in myself when I didn't. He was my light when I didn't think there was much hope with getting through. He also inspired me to join him on an adventure to do a research internship in France. He had just landed one, so I also applied to the same City - Grenoble. I wrote a covering letter and CV, and sent it off to my now very close mentor and friend, Pierre. He loved my letter, and offered me a job! Exams came and went, and we were off!

Within my first week, Pierre mentioned they had a huge observation project coming up, one where they might need some extra hands to take on the observations. I enthusiastically volunteered and made a point to mention it in each of our meetings. I mean, the chance to actually go to a telescope and take data? Yes, PLEASE!

In addition to this, I was working really really hard, and there was talk of publishing my work. But more on that later!

The funding came through, I met with the other physicist, the one whose project the observations were for, a lovely Brazilian man named Victor, and he explained to me our mission, we booked the flights, and off we went! I want to save the details of this trip for a future blog post and maybe even a vlog (as I mentioned my finances were not great, so I only had a scratched gopro and film camera from Alex to take pictures on, so the footage isn't great for the vlog) but I still want to show you guys - really selling it here aren't I!

It was a DREAM. I had reached an all time low at uni and, four months later I was invited to perform real observations taking spectroscopic data from the Taurus molecular cloud (which I also think is fate, because I am a Taurus lol) for 10 days in the mountains in Spain! AAAND it gets better - in my free time I was writing up the results for my section on the paper which was to be published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society!!! In addition to this, I also found out that I had done enough in my exams to finish my degree and do my masters!! Highlight (and huge relief) of my LIFE!

This was real physics. Working on a research project all summer, to travelling and taking real data, working with an international and interdisciplinary team, discussing ideas and learning new theories and derivations, to writing and publishing papers. Physics isn't the exams we take at university, it's the perseverance, hard work and dedication to research and pushing the frontiers of what we know about our universe. This internship gave me the confidence and determination to finish my degree. I stopped worrying about grades, and began enjoying the physics again. With this mindset, I went on to my masters and achieved the best grades yet. I finished my final year with my very first, FIRST! Grades aren't everything and instead of obsessing over them, use them as a tool to get where you want to be. They are important, but they don't determine your worth or ability.

I went from having no faith in my ability as a physicist, to being a future published, master of physics student with experience in radio astronomy! This would not have been possible without the support of my lovely supervisor, mentor and friend Pierre, my boyfriend Alex and my family for believing in and encouraging me that I can do it. Surround yourself with good people, people that build you up.

Things are tough, nothing worth doing is ever easy. But never stop believing in yourself and fighting for what you deserve to and can achieve.

Alice xo

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