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Spotlight: Dr Rachael Tobin, Post-Doctoral Research Associate at Heriot-Watt University

Tell us a fun fact about yourself

I have played the flute since 2002 and enjoy playing Baroque music in a small chamber group.

Tell us about your career journey so far

After finishing secondary school, I moved to Arizona in the USA to study Japanese language. However, upon completion of this degree I decided that my true love and calling was physics! Therefore, I decided to go back to University in 2012 in order to complete a 4-year BSc course in Physics at Heriot-Watt University, where I graduated with a first-class degree in 2015. I then went on to begin a PhD in 2015 where I studied single-photon imaging of targets hidden in obscuring media, such as fog and smoke. Since the completion of my PhD in 2019, I have continued on with this research at Heriot-Watt University as a Post-doctoral Research Associate.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

My favourite subject in school was physics because I love the broadness of the area. You can study things as small as the atom or as large as a planet. Physics allows us to further our understanding of the universe itself and make sense of the world around us. Physics is not just a science – it is a philosophy!

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

In order to become a Post-doctoral Research Associate in physics you must complete a PhD. Entry to a PhD typically requires at least a BSc in a relevant subject area such as physics, maths, engineering, or computer science. It is helpful to come into this area with a strong background in both physical sciences and mathematics. A knowledge of computer programming will also help greatly.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

My favourite thing about my job is the experimental nature of my research. I love having the opportunity to conduct independent research in the lab and then test it out in the field. In addition, working in a university environment allows you to meet many people from all over the world and it is great getting to work with such a diverse team.

What is a normal day in your role like?

Many people believe that science researchers at universities spend all their time in a dark lab alone. While there is the odd day like this, in general the job is incredibly varied. On a normal day I will spend the morning in the laboratory designing and conducting experiments either on my own or with colleagues and students. Once the data has been collected in the morning, I can move on to data analysis and reporting. There may be meetings punctuated throughout the day either with my research group or with industrial collaborators. Another role of Post-doctoral Researchers is mentoring PhD students so part of the day may be dedicated to helping them. On other days I may be attending and presenting my work at international conferences all around the world.

Suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

My work focuses on using light to obtain three-dimensional images of objects in order to examine their depth profiles. I saw a very nice demonstration of this online where the basic principle of using light to obtain 3D profiles can be done at home using an XBOX Kinect device and a sandbox as seen here:

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The UK-wide STEM Ambassador programme is managed by STEM Learning Limited, which operates the National STEM Learning Network, alongside other projects supporting STEM education. To find out more please go to the STEM Learning website