All posts by Cristobel Soares


Running a successful virtual conference – Optics and Photonics for Scientific Progress (OPSP 2021)

Article by Hall Dorrington, University of Kent

The SEPnet student led conferences are an annual series of networking events created and organized by postgraduate students from SEPnet universities. The scheme awards students with the funding and guidance necessary to create a 2-day conference on a subject of their own liking. On the 13th-14th of April 2021, ‘Optics and Photonics for Scientific Progress (OPSP 2021)’ took place, accumulating a total number of 99 visitors throughout, and a concurrent peak of 41.

Planning OPSP2021 took over a year from its earliest conceptions, having its origins as an idea for a one-day event focused on employability and career development for students. This initial idea was a consequence of networking between two student chapters of The Optical Society (OSA), representing the Applied Optics Group (AOG) at the University of Kent and the BioPhotonics Group at the University of Surrey respectively, a chapter connection that was facilitated by Yann Amouroux, director of OSA Europe. Soon later, the idea was adopted by Julien Camard, of the AOG, who further developed the idea into a plan for a full 2-day conference aimed at enhancing optics in science which he proposed to SEPnet and successfully won funding with.

As time progressed, the overhanging pandemic continued in its potency and we eventually made the decision to begin planning for a virtual conference. The task before us was challenging, how to orchestrate an engaging, enjoyable, and informative conference for attendees who would ultimately be staring at a screen for the whole time? Our solution was to create a virtual conference space, to simulate a real conference and not just host another series of zoom meetings! This was possible using ‘’, an online resource that enabled us to create a virtual world in which to host our conference.

The result, it “was amazing”, said an attendee. Another remarked that the “environment was very informal and laidback [which] made everything very enjoyable.” The use of ‘’ was particularly popular, with one guest saying it was a “brilliant way to make virtual conferences not be boring.”

We also thrived in hosting a multinational event. Going virtual meant we were able to secure speakers from around the world, with some joining from as far as Canada, Mexico, and the US. Likewise, international attendees were able to join effortlessly, and at a fraction of the usual CO2 costs normally incurred in traveling to an international event.

One of our initial goals in organizing the conference was to strike a balance between academic presentations/industry professional career guidance with a range of personal development workshops. We were proud to have executed this well, having “many different topics” says an attendee.

A prominent feature of the conference was the shared poster session, which took place in ‘’. The cohort of optics posters were merged with entries from another conference run in parallel to OPSP 2021. This extended our networking to include particle physics students. Attendees mingled amongst the posters as they would in real life, much to their enjoyment. At the end of the session attendees made their way to a main stage, where the winners were announced.

Congratulations to Anja Borre of Danmarks Tekniske Universitet for winning the Public’s Choice Best Optics Poster, and to Paulo Robalinho of Universidade do Porto for winning the Judge’s Choice Best Joint Poster.

Deserving of congratulations are the team of students that made OPSP2021 happen, from Kent: Julien Camard, Rachel Sully, Adrian Fernandez Uceda, Alejandro Martinez Jimenez and Hal Dorrington; and from Surrey: Gavrielle Untracht and Abdullah Durrani. We are also all very grateful to Cristobel Soares, SEPnet Graduate Network Manager who has given us guidance and inspiration throughout. Finally, special thanks are due to Julien and Gavrielle, who worked wonderfully to coordinate the conference and to lead us as a team so effectively.

Personally, I had the opportunity during the conference to chair a panel discussion featuring eminent scientists. To be given the opportunity to demonstrate professionalism and to be part of such a knowledgeable discussion was a brilliant experience, one which without running a SEPnet conference I would not have been granted. All of us members of the team have learnt a lot from stepping up to the challenge of running a conference and we are so much more confident now as a result.

Reflecting on our experience, we can say that is has been a lot of work, but overall, it has been very rewarding and has left us proud of our accomplishment. The process of inviting speakers to the conference was a great opportunity to network and build connections with renowned researchers.

Running a SEPnet conference is a rare opportunity to gain great confidence and proficiency at interfacing with professionals in the field. If you are considering applying to lead a student conference – do it! Say yes and grow. 



Why get involved in organising a GRADnet Student-led Conference?

13-14 April 2021: Novel Ideas in HEP: From Theory to Detector

In July 2020 my team and I were given the opportunity by SEPnet to organise a student-led conference and design the programme. We were excited to do this as it was a unique opportunity to make a student conference our own.  Armed with advice from the organisers of last year’s online student-led conference and the support of GRADnet we were able to handle the practicalities of organising an online conference during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With regular meetings with Cristobel Soares, the Graduate Network Manager, who handled the logistics of the conference, we were able to focus on the scientific aspect as well as deciding how best to hold the conference online.

As lead organiser for our conference I worked closely with Julien Camard the lead organiser of the parallel conference: ‘Optics and photonics for scientific progress’.   We had regular catch ups with our teams to discuss how best to produce joint sessions such as an opportunity for attendees to learn about post-PhD career options both in and out of academia as well as a joint poster session. In this latter session we used the software ‘GatherTown’ to hold an online meet and greet where we could discuss attendees’ posters and the conference at large – a unique setting for a unique time. 

Organising the conference was a team effort and couldn’t have happened, let alone be as enjoyable as it was, without the other members of the organising team; Ciara Byers (University of Southampton), Arran Freegard (Queen Mary University of London), Billy Ford (University of Southampton), Ross Glew (University of Southampton) and Charlie Woodward (University of Southampton). Together we overcame the challenges of organising an online conference and how to make it interactive and informative.

Thank you to all the invited speakers, including Professor Daniel Litim (University of Sussex), Professor Carlos Nunez (Swansea University), Dr Vera Guelpers (University of Edinburgh), Dr Stefan Prestal (Lund University), Professor Veronica Sanz (University of Sussex), Dr Ian Tomalin (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) and Dr Sadie Jones (University of Southampton) as well as our student speakers, poster presenters and attendees for making the conference a success.  Thank you to Professor Stefano Moretti (University of Southampton) for his invaluable support. 

I would recommend organising a student-led conference because it is an opportunity to practise transferrable skills in a scientific context such as working in a large collaboration, public speaking and chairing, organising/recruiting people and many others.  My team and I have shared experiences we wouldn’t have expected when we first started our PhDs, experiences which I anticipate will be invaluable going forward in our careers and set us apart from the crowd.  

The conference went very well and as you can see from the feedback below the participants enjoyed it too!

“The talks were a good length and there was a good structure to the conference”

 “There was a very broad range of talks but each was introduced very well and pedagogically by the invited speakers”

 “I most enjoyed some talks which were not so related to my research, which is a good indication that they were aimed at the perfect level of complexity”

Article by Alex Mitchell-Lister, University of Southampton


SEPnet launches new network for underrepresented PhD students!

IPPSnet: Intersectional PhD Peer Support network

What is the network? 

The purpose of the network is to connect and support underrepresented PhD students across the SEPnet institutions. This includes (but is not necessarily limited to) students who identify as Black and minority ethnic, disabled, LGBTQIA+, of a minority religion and/or women.

We aim to create a friendly and supportive intersectional community and to run events and initiatives to provide peer support and mentoring!

See our new webpage here and to join our mailing list, or to ask any questions you have about the network, please email us at


Virtual Observational Astronomy Workshop

Over 60 postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers attended the GRADnet online observational astronomy workshop on 10 March 2021.

Thank you to Kathy Romer, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sussex and her wonderful team who provided pre-recorded content as part of the live workshop as well as the following sessions:

  • Observational Astronomy in the future: Plenary seminar with Q&A with Dr Steve Wilkins, Reader in Astronomy in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, University of Sussex.
  • Virtual Observatories and introduction: Seminar given by Dr Peter Hurley, Research Fellow in Extra-Galactic Astrophysics (Physics and Astronomy), University of Sussex and Dr Raphael Shirley, Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Survey Scientist; postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southampton.

Participants enjoyed “learning about future telescopes and meeting people in Gather Town”. “It’s the first time I’ve been to an event where this networking feature has worked virtually.  This was really well planned.”

The “telescope quiz was fun, the talks were great and the sharing of expertise”.  Delegates welcomed the flexibility of the virtual workshop: “Having the option of watching pre-recorded talks was nice. It made it easy to pick and choose the parts which were relevant to me.”

Post-Covid-19 GRADnet looks forward to being able to run a similar face-to-face event sometime in the future!


Online GRADnet Winter School a success!

GRADnet in collaboration with Mark Horner, Performance Pathways, successfully ran a three-day online course 15-17 February 2021 via Microsoft Teams for 30 delegates focusing on transferrable skills development.  The workshop looked at the complexities of team working, effective communication and how to best perform in a team, remote team working, with the opportunity to develop leadership qualities and skills.

Participants explored the benefits of, and opportunities for, improved self and social awareness; gaining an understanding of one’s strengths and areas for support; looking at how one’s working style impacts on co-workers; developing the experience, skills and qualities needed for future leadership.

Working in teams, remotely, using some A4 sheets of paper, paper clips and sticky tape, delegates had to construct a paper structure and balance a plastic bottle on top.

Chris Brunskill, Head of UK Space Programme, D-Orbit kindly provided the challenge “Design of a commercial space service” where delegates had to pitch and present their business plan in under 15 minutes! 

Congratulations to Team A who won the challenge:  Adel Aljarid, University of Sussex, Josefine Gårn, University of Hertfordshire, Kai Sun, University of Southampton, Terje Theisen, Royal Holloway University of London and Hannah Wood, University of Sussex.  They chose to start a satellite company for the remote censoring of crop fields to help farmers and insurance companies with crop fields.

This years’ Winter School was due to take place at Cumberland Lodge, Great Park Windsor, but was switched to online delivery due to the current Covid-19 lockdown.  The tech worked and thankfully everything ran very smoothly.

Feedback from participants:

  • “Good organisation of the workshop, communicating schedules and resources etc. and using the technology to make this work remotely”.
  • “The workshop facilitators were great and very effective. They did a great job motivating me to do my best.”
  • Thank you for a great event! I really enjoyed myself and both Mark and Chris were great.”

Cosmological Clues for Beginners!

Congratulations to Dr Carolyn Devereux FRAS, University of Hertfordshire, on the publication of her new book: “Cosmological Clues:  Evidence for the Big Bang, Dark Matter and Dark Energy”.

Carolyn is a lecturer in astrophysics at the Centre for Astrophysics Research, specialising in galaxy evolution and observational cosmology using Cosmic Microwave Background lensing. After gaining her PhD from University College University (1990), she researched  electro-optical devices using ferroelectric liquid crystals and liquid crystal polymers at the Hirst Research Centre, GEC. After managing large IT projects in industry, followed by a career break, she changed fields to become an astrophysicist focusing on the measurement of dark matter halo mass and the role of dark matter in the evolution of the Large Scale Structure of the Universe.  

This book gives an overview of cosmology showing how the different theories and observations fit together to make the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (LCDM) model. The book is for beginner students (it is written without any equations) and focusses on understanding the concepts that make up the LCDM model of cosmology. It is written in a readable way with stories about how the LCDM model developed and the scientists involved in it’s  development. It covers the early universe, including difficult topics such as structure formation and inflation, and it looks at current research, exploring some of the key questions that we have in cosmology. This is a book that will help students understand cosmology.

To obtain access to the book see here.

Abstract:  Did the Universe have a beginning? Will it have an end? Or has it always been the same, never changing? This is the subject of cosmology; the study of the Universe, and this book provides a perfect introduction to the subject for anyone that is interested in the wonders of our Universe

This book provides an accessible overview of the Standard Model of Cosmology, which is explained in six Cosmological Clues, including evidence for the Big Bang and dark matter and dark energy – the keystones of modern cosmology. 

It takes readers through some of the most exciting questions in cosmology, such as what evidence do we have that the Universe started from the Big Bang? Has dark matter been observed? Will we ever know what dark energy is? Are the multiverses real? And could the Universe be a hologram? 

This book is an ideal guide for anyone interested in finding out more about our Universe. It will be of interest to those studying cosmology for the first time, including readers without a scientific background, who have an interest in looking up at the stars and wondering where they all came from!

Key features: 

  • Contains the latest evidence for the Big Bang, dark matter, and dark energy and explores exciting scientific ideas, such as inflation and multiverses
  • Provides a clear explanation of the main theories of how the Universe evolved based on key observations – the Cosmological Clues
  • Gives the reader a concise introduction to the scientific process, using cosmology as the example, and explores why it has been so successful in creating the technologies we have today



Machine Learning and AI Workshop via Zoom!

Over 50 delegates signed up to the GRADnet Online Machine Learning and AI Workshop on Wednesday, 20 January 2021 via Zoom. Topics covered were Linear Regression; Neural Networks and Convolutional Neural Networks supported. set up by the Turing Institute along with other notable organisations was a useful   tool for this workshop and helped students to run scripts or run jupyter notebooks through their browser linked to the tags of the git repository.

This workshop is always very popular in the GRADnet training calendar and the feedback was once again very positive, particularly for an online event:

  • “Doing these things on zoom is excellent! It makes it so much easier to attend. It would be great to keep this option after the pandemic ends.”
  • “Great to have the breakout room discussions with hands on practise with the code. The helpers were also very helpful, and interesting to talk to about the wider topic of ML”
  • “The explanation of the Jupyter notebooks was really great.”

Thank you to Professor Adrian Bevan, Queen Mary University of London for delivering this workshop and postgraduate researchers, Joe Davies and Tong Qui, also from QMUL, who provided excellent hands-on support during the workshop. 

GRADnet looks forward to working with Adrian and his team next year!


Fancy a complimentary surgery with the Product Doctor?!

One of the highlights on my calendar is running the “Turning Science into Business Workshop” for your PhD participants. Now in its 4th year, we all went online and with fast moving content, lots of lively group exercises and a real life case study to work on, I’m pleased to say that maintained our high level of participant satisfaction! 

Here’s a snippet from the feedback: 

“…Short, simple, practical, useful and fun…Excellent opportunity to learn about business models…Very useful in explaining the marketing and customer side of things, which scientist often lack…Well structured, well delivered, good overview with a positive delivery…Teaches a structure to test whether business ideas are worth pursuing…”

The reason I particularly like working with your gang is that the science brain embraces the method of developing a hypothesis, identifying the biggest risks and then running a test to discover missing evidence. And it’s just this approach that I use to help all sorts of people from all walks of life to move their ideas forward. 

This year I launched my new book, The Really Good Idea Test published by Pearson. As I write, I’ve just found out that today it has made it into WHSmiths as their 6th best-selling business book; so it really is a recommended read for anyone who wants to work through a new idea and find out if it has legs. 

To celebrate the launch, I would like to offer up a free hour of my time to anyone who buys the book in 2020. Perhaps you want to talk through how to commercialise your research? Or perhaps something more general – a career in business, product or innovation? 

You can find the book here on Amazon, you can find me at and email me direct:

Article written by Julia Shalet, Product Doctor


How to commercialise your research?

SEPnet postgraduate researchers were given the opportunity to learn how to commercialise their research and get a better understanding of innovation in practice at the Turning Science into Business online workshop 1-2 December 2020. 

The workshop was run by Julia Shalet, Product Doctor, experienced innovator and author. Julia has run very highly rated workshops for SEPnet and has also worked with thousands of innovators across a very broad range of sectors and environments. Julia’s latest book is “The Really Good Idea Test“.

Working in teams, with a real-life case study from , Mason Rowbottom, Chief Executive at Addisol Ltd, delegates created a meaningful value proposition offering solutions to Mason in an interactive session.  They discovered how to reduce their biggest risks before building anything. 

Delegates thought the workshop was an “excellent opportunity to learn about business models and broaden your possibilities on industry” and “very useful in explaining the marketing and customer side of things, which scientist often lack”.

Thank you to Julia and Mason for your contribution to a great workshop.









25 November 2020: IOP Publishing Webinar 11:00-12:00: “How to get published?”

IOP Publishing is one of the world’s foremost publishers within the physical sciences, with over 80 titles covering all aspects of physics. For early career scientists starting out in research, the world of academic publishing can be somewhat confusing. In this webinar we aim to shed some light on this process and enable you to navigate it to maximise the impact and visibility your research. This talk will cover topics such as open access, choosing the correct journal for your work, the peer-review process, and promoting your research. More information can be found on the IOP Publishing Support site at

Register here by 24 November.