What’s it like to be a summer intern at a physics-based company?

Two summer interns – working, respectively, at Astrium and Selex Galileo – give us an insight into some of their first work-based experiences at a physics-based company.  Both interns are taking part in the Institute of Physics’ Top 40 Work Placements Scheme.

Toby has been working on a 3D imaging system for a new planetary rover

Our first intern to feature is Toby Brown, a third year Astrophysics student from the University of Liverpool, who has been working for Astrium in Hertfordshire, a company that specialises in space technology. Toby is working on the creation and implementation of a 3D imaging system for planetary landers and rovers.

Having started his internship a little earlier in the summer, he reflects on the challenge of keeping a work-life balance when you start full-time work, “I have found the life style change from student to intern a large one, even though, like most people, I feel I’m putting huge effort into my degree, but the impact of a full working week for months on end has an effect on how flexible you can be with other commitments in your life.

“As an intern I have found I am given real responsibilities, work and opportunities that cannot be found in the lecture halls or libraries of universities while also undergoing some of the small sacrifices that working life entails.

“Throughout my placement, however, Astrium has been great in helping me adjust and settle in to life within the company.  Always approachable and open, colleagues have given me advice and assistance on everything from finding stationary to high level programming on my project.  One of the best ways I have been supported as a placement student is my inclusion in the weekly departmental meetings.

“I address the meetings just like everybody else, giving an update on my progress throughout the previous week, highlighting any issues I may be experiencing or particular developments that are coming along well.

“I also get to listen to others talk about their projects and the progress they are making.  This gives me a great insight into how the company works and a sense of participation within the company.”

Reflecting on what he’s gained from the internship and how it came about, Toby writes, ”Doing internships makes you more employable and the Institute of Physics’ bursary offered to penultimate year undergraduates such as myself allowed me to complete an eight-week internship at a company of my choice.”

Elizabeth Crossley, a third year physics student from the University of Southampton, has started an internship with Selex Galileo. The company is a leader in defence electronics and, based at the company’s Southampton site, Elizabeth is working in a team that specialises in the creation of infrared detectors.

Having prepared herself with a mug, a microwaveable bowl, a can of spaghetti and 50p for the coffee club, Elizabeth was actually returning to the site, having worked there once before.

She says, “I was in the fortunate position of not being totally in the dark about where my placement was, who I’d be working with, and what I’d be working on. This didn’t, however, take away from the nerves that come with starting a ‘new’ job.”

In the slightly different scenario of being someone returning to a place she’d worked before, Elizabeth writes, “I was pleased today that I was still treated as an adult, with some experience.  It was accepted, and even expected, that I remember much of what I did last year.  This level of respect is something that I am not used to, and I think it is what I liked so much about Selex the first time I was here.

“A lot came back to me when I was stood in front of the variety of complex machines in the cleanroom – even down to specific run programmes.  Sometimes I found myself letting my hands drive, even though my brain hadn’t consciously remembered where they were going.

“My job in the Process Engineering team means I spend a lot of time in the cleanrooms. The cleanroom dress code consists of a full boiler suit, hood, mask (called a yashmak), boots, gloves and goggles.

“The purpose of cleanroom clothes is to protect the items you’re working on, rather than to protect you. This means that if you’re working with some more harmful chemicals, additional personal protective equipment may be required.

“I work predominantly in the photolithography section of the cleanroom where we use chemicals that are sensitive to ultraviolet light. As such all UV light is filtered out, and the room is lit with yellow lights. It is akin to a photography darkroom.”


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