Monthly Archives: September 2020


STEM Careers Postcards

We have developed a set of careers postcards showcasing a range of careers which use physics qualifications or skills. These highlight employers in the SEPnet region which offer relevant roles and give information on the levels of qualifications needed.

The new Gatsby Careers Benchmarks, especially benchmark 4, highlight the expectation on teachers to embed careers into their classroom teaching. These cards are an easy way to introduce STEM careers into classrooms, and all are mapped to the KS3 curriculum.

We owe a huge thanks to NUSTEM as these were developed based on NUSTEM resources, and they have been fantastically generous and supportive throughout the process.  We have utilised the 15 STEM attributes laid out by NUSTEM, based on previous work of the WISE Campaign and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

We are also very grateful for the support of all the organisations who have contributed including: AWE, Brady Mallalieu Architects, CGG, Fat Fish Games, Forest Learning Alliance, Framestore, Jacobs, The Met Office, Millais Alliance, NPL, RSSL, Surrey Satellite Technology, Thames Water and University of Surrey.

The cards are available to download and print for free here. If you would like any more information about the cards, or advice on how to use them, please email


Organising a virtual conference during a global pandemic!

Virginia Apostolopou, PhD student, Soft Matter Group, University of Surrey, shares her experience of organising a SEPnet Student-led Conference: “Soft Matter: the unseen science all around us”, during challenging times.

In my first year as a PhD student at the University of Surrey, I heard about SEPnet and the exciting activities they organise for postgraduate students. Previous institutes that I have attended didn’t have these opportunities for training and networking and so I was very excited to take part in the workshops and the activities organised by the network. One of the activities that caught my attention from the beginning was the student-led conference. I loved the idea of a conference organised by postgraduates and I kept it in the back of my mind as something I will love to try in the future.

At the beginning of my second year of my PhD, I started discussing with people from my group at Surrey, the idea of submitting a conference proposal. Our motivation was the diversity of our projects; although we were all in the Soft Matter group, we worked in different projects, from industrial applications to applications of nano materials. We wanted to translate this diversity and multi-disciplinary nature of Soft Matter physics into a conference that will bring together students working from seemingly different projects, but in the core, the physics of their research is very similar. Our initial intention of a multi-disciplinary conference was reflected in the speakers we chose to invite: a group of six, well-established researchers from different fields of soft matter physics and different institutes agreed enthusiastically to support our conference by presenting their work.

By late February everything was ready for the conference: the schedule, the website, speakers, accommodation and the catering requirements. It was to be held at the University of Southampton, on the 25th-27th March. At the same time, more and more news started to emerge about a concentrated epidemic in a region in China, now spreading rapidly to the rest of the word. One after the other, big conferences and scientific meetings began announcing their cancellations. By early-March we were still hopeful that since we were going to be a small conference we would be able to go ahead. As we were getting closer to the dates we realised that we should face the situation sensibly and cancel the conference until further notice.

We initially decided to reschedule the conference for early September. Our decision was based on our belief that the main purpose of the conference was for the students to share their work and create future collaborations. We thought that having a virtual conference instead would dismiss that purpose. Technology is an essential tool in these weird times but still, it cannot entirely replace personal interactions among scientific communities. However, eventually, we had to face the reality of our times and rather reluctantly had to move the conference online.

To our surprise the conference was well-received! We managed to book all our invited speakers and almost all the original delegates were able to participate. Some of our speakers suggested opening the conference to students outside SEPnet. We thought that during these difficult times, it is important to open this kind of opportunity to everyone in the scientific community. We were delighted to see delegates from all over the world joining our virtual conference.

I think that overall the conference was a great success. It definitely exceeded my expectations regarding networking and engagement. I am very proud of the scientific programme that we managed to put together and the discussions that took place during the conference.

It was all the result of an excellent collaboration with a group of extremely talented people: Katrin Elidottir, Louie Scott, Malin Schulz, Mireya Borg, University of Surrey, Rhiannon Harries, University of Sussex and of course, Cristobel Soares, SEPnet Graduate Network Manager, who helped and guided us along the way.

It is very impressive to see what a team of creative and passionate people can accomplish in a these very challenging and uncertain times!



Organising my first conference during a pandemic!

Tomás E. Müller Bravo, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Southampton gives his perspective on organising and delivering a SEPnet student-led conference during a pandemic!

Every year SEPnet provides an opportunity to a group of postgraduate researchers to organise a two-day student-led conference at the University of Southampton. I first came to know about this when I applied for a talk at the Astronomy conference from 2019 ( From Infinity to Zero: the history of the Universe in redshift). These types of conferences are perfect for early career researchers as it is organised by students, for students, although a few academic speakers are also invited. You do not feel the same pressure as with the big international conferences where you find all the “big names” from your research field. In addition, you also get to know lots of people in the same career stages as you and share experiences.

After the 2019 conference I attended was over, I was very interested in organising one of my own. I talked to Elizabeth Swann, University of Portsmouth, the lead organiser to ask her for advice (this was really helpful!). I got very excited with the idea, so I decided to ask around in my Astronomy department for fellow PGRs who might be interested in organising a conference and started writing a proposal. At the same time a group of PGRs from the University of Hertfordshire were writing one of their own. They kindly suggested to work together instead of competing, so we started collaborating on a single proposal (after all, isn’t this what research is all about?).

Choosing the topic of the conference was relatively easy. As many big telescopes and surveys are coming in the near future, we thought it might be a good idea to focus on big data and machine learning, thus, the title of the conference: The Big Data Era in Astronomy. Finding academic speakers wasn’t too hard either. As several of us in the organising committee work on different fields, we quickly came up with a list of candidates. Cristobel Soares, Graduate Network Manager, was in charge of the logistics and  funding and very helpful with her advice and support.   We mainly had to focus on the structure, science and social events (eg, a conference dinner) at the meeting. Everything was going according to plan as the conference date was approaching, however, everything changed when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Many things were quite uncertain at that time. We didn’t know how long and how much this pandemic would affect everyone, so we had to postpone the conference. As time passed, we grew impatient. We didn’t know if we were going to have the opportunity to host the meeting or if we would have to cancel it. Eventually, we decided to do what many other conferences, schools and workshops were doing, choose a new date and go virtual!

This was full of challenges. We didn’t have to worry about funding, conference dinner and other logistics, but we did have to think about the proper platforms to host our virtual conference on. Thankfully, all SEPnet universities have access to Microsoft Teams, so we chose it as our platform for hosting the talks. In addition, Slack is widely used in academic environments as it is perfect for asynchronous discussions, questions, announcements, etc. We also decided to use Slido for the questions at the end of each talk, which was quite new to all of us.   I actually got to know about Slido during an ESO conference I attended in June.

Unfortunately, as things were still uncertain close to the new date of the conference in September, many of the students were unable to attend. Therefore, we had to shorten the length of the conference from two days to one and cut the number of sessions by half. However, the conference turned out better than expected.

From the feedback from the participants we learnt that the length of the conference (including the length of talks, breaks, etc.) worked well. Furthermore, the platforms used (Microsoft Teams, Slack, Slido) were really useful and the attendees found the conference was worth attending. Nonetheless, most of them, given the opportunity to choose, would prefer an in-person meeting instead of a virtual one.

Fingers-crossed for the 2021 Student-led Conferences!