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Spotlight: Holly Hourston, MSc Physics and Astronomy student at the University of Glasgow

Tell us a fun fact about yourself

I am a black belt in Taekwondo!

Tell us about your career journey so far

After being inspired at a young age in primary school by a topic we did on ‘Space’, I always had physics in mind for my future. I had a few wobbles though (I thought I was going to do music instead, or neuroscience and learn about brains!) and I really doubted I was smart enough to handle physics at university because I didn’t really like maths! But I persevered in school with maths, got into university, and now I’m considering studying physics even past my degree and maybe doing a doctorate!

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

Physics (but music was a close second!). I love how you can describe every single thing we see on earth and in space with numbers and equations, and how you there’s always an answer - except with all the things we don’t understand yet! There are endless questions and things to discover, and learning about stars is really interesting too.

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

I need to use maths all the time of course, and I’ve also been taught how to code in university but I didn’t do any computer science subjects in school. I’d say Higher Physics and Maths are the most needed, but computing science and chemistry would also come in handy (chemistry especially if you’re interested in astronomy or quantum physics!). I’d also recommend doing a social science (I did Modern Studies) because you learn how to select pieces of information from sources, which is actually a really useful transferrable skill when you study any science because you can use this skill when you have to read over reports or papers of experiments!

What is your favourite thing about your job?

I love having labs, these are practical days when you do experiments. As the years in university have gone on, the labs get more and more complicated, but it’s pretty cool because you feel like a real life scientist working on things that other scientists are actually working on across the world! University is also a really fun experience, mostly because you get to see your friends a lot in classes, and because most universities are in cities or big towns it’s really easy to go for lunch or coffee with people between lectures if you want to, so it can be really sociable too.

What is a normal day in your role like?

Usually my university day starts at 10am (9am though in 1st and 2nd year!). I have lectures from 10am-12pm, then I have a break from classes for a couple hours. In this time, I would maybe do some tutorial questions or revise the lectures I had in the morning, and of course take a break to eat, maybe chat to some friends and relax.

Then I sometimes have “supervisions”- these are when you and 5-6 other students go to a lecturer’s office for an hour, and they talk you through example questions and answer your own questions about things you didn’t fully understand in the lecture. These are really good chances to learn because university is different from school in the sense that you don’t really have any teachers anymore! You don’t often get a chance to have in-depth conversations about things you don’t understand in lectures, and it can be a bit scary putting your hand up in the middle of a lecture and asking a question in front of 100 people! So getting some time in a small group to chat to a lecturer about things you don’t quite understand is really useful.

Most days I have 1 or 2 lectures in the afternoon as well, so I typically finish classes at 4pm or 5pm. If I’m really busy, I tend to stay at the university in the library or the physics building to work on my lab reports, supervision questions, or just write up some notes on lectures from the day! Other days I have labs, which take up most of my day. These days look like 10am lecture, 11-5pm labs, where I do experiments and try to figure out my next steps in the project I’m working on. I have a lab partner, so it’s really important in learning how to work closely with other people!

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

A lot of what I’m expected to do is research different things in physics if I don’t understand from the lectures. I also sometimes have to make presentations for talks to my class, so I have to do some research for this!

If you like space, here’s a list of some different types of stars that astronomers might look at! Pick one and teach yourself about it (I have attached the Wikipedia links to them to get you started).

Can you make a poster or a PowerPoint explaining what kind of stars they are? Why they are special/what makes them different from our Sun? And, if you want to get technical, try to find out how astronomers can see them and can tell what they are made up of!

Wolf-Rayet stars

Neutron stars

Red Giant stars

White Dwarf stars

How to image stars:

How do we know what stars are made of? (video)


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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