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  1. CERN to produce radioisotopes for health

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    Accelerators and their related technologies have long been developed at CERN to undertake fundamental research in nuclear physics, probe the high-energy frontier or explore the properties of antimatter. Some of the spin-offs of this activity have become key to society. A famous example is the World Wide Web, while another is medical applications such as positron emission tomography (PET) scanner prototypes and image reconstruction algorithms developed in collaboration between CERN and Geneva University Hospitals in the early 1990s. Today, as accelerator physicists develop the next-generation radioactive beam facilities to address new questions in nuclear structure – in particular HIE-ISOLDE at CERN, SPIRAL 2 at GANIL in France, ISOL@Myrrha at SCK•CEN in Belgium and SPES at INFN in Italy – medical doctors are devising new approaches to diagnose and treat diseases such as neurodegenerative disorders and cancers.

    The bridge between the radioactive-beam and medical communities dates back to the late 1970s, when radioisotopes collected from a secondary beam at CERN’s Isotope mass Separator On-Line facility (ISOLDE) were used to synthesise an injectable radiopharmaceutical in a patient suffering from cancer. 167Tm-citrate, a radiolanthanide associated to a chelating chemical, was used to perform a PET image of a lymphoma, which revealed the spread-out cancerous tumours. While PET became a reference protocol to provide quantitative imaging information, several other pre-clinical and pilot clinical tests have been performed with non-conventional radioisotopes collected at radioactive-ion-beam facilities – both for diagnosis and for therapeutic applications.

    Despite significant progress made in the past decade in the field of oncology, however, the prognosis of certain tumours is still poor – particularly for patients presenting advanced glioblastoma multiforme (a form of very aggressive brain cancer) or pancreatic adenocarcinoma. The latter is a leading cause of cancer death in the developed world and surgical resection is the only potential treatment, although many patients are not candidates for surgery. Although external-beam gamma radiation and chemotherapy are used to treat patients with non-operable pancreatic tumours, and survival rates can be improved by combined radio- and chemotherapy, there is still a clear need for novel treatment modalities for pancreatic cancer.

    A new project at CERN called MEDICIS aims to develop non-conventional isotopes to be used as a diagnostic agent and for brachytherapy or unsealed internal radiotherapy for the treatment of non-resectable brain and pancreatic cancer, among other forms of the disease. Initiated in 2010, the facility will use a proton beam at ISOLDE to produce isotopes that first will be destined for hospitals and research centres in Switzerland, followed by a progressive roll-out to a larger network of laboratories in Europe and beyond. The project is now approaching its final phase, with start-up foreseen in June 2017.

    A century of treatment

    The idea of using radioisotopes to cure cancer was first proposed by Pierre Curie soon after his discovery of radium in 1898. The use of radium seduced many physicians because the penetrating rays could be used superficially or be inserted surgically into the body – a method called brachytherapy. The first clinical trials took place at the Curie Institute in France and at St Luke’s Memorial Hospital in New York at the beginning of the 20th century, for the treatment of prostate cancer.

    A century later, in 2013, a milestone was met with the successful clinical trials of 223Ra in the form of the salt-solution RaCl2, which was injected into patients suffering from prostate cancers with bone metastasis. The positive effect on patient survival was so clear in the last clinical validation (so-called phase III), that the trial was terminated prematurely to allow patients who had received a placebo to be given the effective drug. Today, the availability of new isotopes, medical imagery, robotics, monoclonal antibodies and a better understanding of tumour mechanisms has enabled progress in both brachytherapy and unsealed internal radiotherapy. Radioisotopes can now be placed closer to and even inside the tumour cells, killing them with minimal damage to healthy tissue.

    CERN-MEDICIS aims to further advance this area of medicine. New isotopes with specific types of emission, tissue penetration and half-life will be produced and purified based on expertise acquired during the past 50 years in producing beams of radioisotope ions for ISOLDE’s experimental programme. Diagnosis by single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), a form of scintigraphy, covers the vast majority of worldwide isotope consumption based on the gamma-emitting 99mTc, which is used for functional probing of the brain and various other organs. PET protocols are increasingly used based on the positron emitter 18F and, more recently, a 68Ga compound. Therapy, on the other hand, is mostly carried out with beta emitters such as 131I, more recently with 177Lu, or with 223Ra for the new application of targeted alpha therapy (see p35). Other isotopes also offer clear benefits, such as 149Tb, which is the lightest alpha-emitting radiolanthanide and also combines positron-emitting properties.

    Driven by ISOLDE

    With 17 Member States and an ever-growing number of users, ISOLDE is a dynamic facility that has provided beams for around 300 experiments at CERN in its 50 year history. It allows researchers to explore the structure of the atomic nucleus, study particle physics at low energies, and provides radioactive probes for solid-state and biophysics. Through 50 years of collaboration between the technical teams and the users, a deep bond has formed, and the facility evolves hand-in-hand with new technologies and research topics.

    CERN MEDICIS is the next step in this adventure, and the user community is joining in efforts to push the development of the machine in a new direction. The project was initiated six years ago by a relatively small collaboration involving CERN, KU Leuven, EPFL and two local University Hospitals (CHUV in Lausanne and HUG in Geneva). One year later, in 2011, CERN decided to streamline medical production of radioisotopes and to offer grants dedicated to technology transfer. While the mechanical conveyor system to transport the irradiated targets was covered by such a grant, the construction of the CERN MEDICIS building began in September 2013. The installation of the services, mass separator and laboratory is now under way.

    At ISOLDE, physicists direct a high-energy proton beam from the Proton Synchrotron Booster (PSB) at a target. Since the beam loses only 10% of its intensity and energy on hitting the target, the particles that pass through it can still be used. For CERN-MEDICIS, a second target therefore sits behind the first and is used for exotic isotope generation. Key to the project is a mechanical system that transports a fresh target and its ion source into one of the two ISOLDE target-stations’ high resolution separator (HRS) beam dump, irradiates it with the proton beam from the PSB to generate the isotopes, then returns it to the CERN-MEDICIS laboratory. The system was fully commissioned in 2014 under proton-beam irradiation with a target that was later used to produce a secondary beam, thus validating the full principle. A crucial functional element was still missing: the isotope mass separator, along with its services and target station. Coincidentally, however, CERN MEDICIS started just as the operation of KU Leuven’s isotope-separation facility ended, and a new lease of life could therefore be given to its dipole magnet separator, which was delivered to CERN earlier this year for testing and refurbishment.

    A close collaboration is growing at MEDICIS centred around the core team at CERN but involving partners from fundamental nuclear physics, material science, radiopharmacy, medical physics, immunology, radiobiology, oncology and surgery, with more to come.

    Training network

    With such an exceptional tool at hand, and based on growing pre-clinical research experiments performed at local university hospitals, in 2014 a H2020 Innovative Training Network was set up by CERN to ensure MEDICIS is fully exploited. This “Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions” proposal was submitted to the European Commission entitled MEDICIS-Promed, which stands for MEDICIS-produced radioisotope beams for medicine. The goal of this 14-institution consortium is to train a new generation of scientists to develop systems for personalised medicine combining functional imaging and treatments based on radioactive ion-beam mass separation. Subsystems for the development of new radiopharmaceuticals, isotope mass separators at medical cyclotrons, and of mass-separated 11Carbon for PET-aided hadron therapy are to be specifically developed to treat ovarian cancer. Pre-clinical experiments have already started, with the first imaging studies ever done with these exotic radioisotopes. For this, a specific ethical review board has been implemented within the consortium and is chaired by independent members.

    With the MEDICIS facility entering operation next year, an increasing range of innovative isotopes will progressively become accessible. These will be used for fundamental studies in cancer research, for new imaging and therapy protocols in cell and animal models, and for pre-clinical trials – possibly extended to early phase clinical studies up to Phase I trials. During the next few years, 500 MBq isotope batches purified by electromagnetic mass separation combined with chemical methods will be collected on a weekly basis. This is a step increase in production to make these innovative isotopes more available to biomedical research laboratories, compared with the present production of a few days per year in a facility such as ISOLDE.

    Staged production

    During its initial stage in 2017, only low-Z materials, such as titanium foils and Y2O3 ceramics, will be used as targets. From these, we will produce batches of several hundred MBq of 44,47Sc and 61,64Cu. In the second stage, tentatively scheduled for 2018, we will use targets from the nuclei of higher atomic numbers, such as tantalum foils, to reach some of the most interesting terbium and lanthanide isotopes. In a final phase in 2018, we foresee the use of uranium and thorium targets to reach an even wider range of isotopes and most of the other alpha-emitters.

    Selected isotopes will first be tested in vitro for their capacity to destroy glioblastoma or pancreatic adenocarcinoma or neudoendocine tumour cells, and in vivo by using mouse models of cancer. We will also test the isotopes for their direct effect on tumours and when they are coupled to peptides with tumour-homing capacities. New delivery methods for brachytherapy using stereotactic, endoscopic ultrasonographic-guided or robotic-assisted surgery will be established in large-animal models.

    Moreover, this new facility marks the entrance of CERN into the era of theranostics. This growing oncological field allows nuclear-medicine physicians to verify and quantify the presence of cellular and molecular targets in a given patient with the diagnostic radioisotope, before treating the disease with the therapeutic radioisotope. The prospect of a dedicated facility at CERN for the production of innovative isotopes, together with local leading institutes in life and medical sciences and a large network of laboratories, makes this an exciting scientific programme in the coming years.

    Further reading

    R Augusto et al. 2014 Applied Sciences 4 265.

    G Horev-Drori. et al. 2011 Translational Research 159 32.

    C Parker et al. 2013 New England Journal of Medicine 369 213.

    M Sadeghi et al. 2010 Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics 6 239.


    Le CERN produira des radio-isotopes pour la médecine

    Le lien entre les communautés des accélérateurs et de la médecine remonte à presque 50 ans. Aujourd’hui, alors que les physiciens développent la nouvelle génération de machines pour la recherche, les médecins imaginent de nouvelles méthodes pour diagnostiquer et traiter les maladies neurodégénératives et les cancers. Le projet MEDICIS du CERN vise à développer de nouveaux isotopes pouvant être utilisés à la fois comme agents de diagnostic et pour la curiethérapie ou la radiothérapie interne avec source non scellée, pour le traitement de cancers du cerveau ou du pancréas non opérables et d’autres formes de cette maladie. L’installation, dont l’idée a germé en 2010 et qui sera opérationnelle en 2017, utilise un faisceau de protons et l’installation de faisceaux d’ions radioactifs ISOLDE pour produire des isotopes médicaux. Ces isotopes seront d’abord destinés à des hôpitaux et des centres de recherche en Suisse, puis progressivement à d’autres laboratoires en Europe et ailleurs dans le monde.

    Leo Buehler, Geneva University Hospitals, Thomas Cocolios, KU Leuven, John Prior, CHUV, and Thierry Stora, CERN.

  2. Proton therapy enters precision phase

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    Each year, millions of people worldwide undergo treatment for cancer based on focused beams of high-energy photons. Produced by electron linear accelerators (linacs), photons with energies in the MeV range are targeted on cancerous tissue where they indirectly ionise DNA atoms and therefore reduce the ability of cells to reproduce. Photon therapy has been in clinical use for more than a century, following the discovery of X-rays by Roentgen in 1896, and has helped to save or improve the quality of countless lives.

    Proton therapy, which is a subclass of particle or hadron therapy, is an innovative alternative technique in radiotherapy. It can treat tumours in a much more precise manner than X- or gamma-rays because the radiation dose of protons is ballistic: protons have a definite range characterised by the Bragg peak, which depends on their energy. This initial ballistic advantage gives protons their advantage over X-rays to provide a dose deposition that better matches tumour contours while limiting the dose in the vicinity. This property, which was first identified by accelerator-pioneer Robert Wilson in 1946 when he was involved in the design of the Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory, results in a greater treatment efficiency  and a lower risk of complications.

    The pioneers of proton therapy used accelerators from physics laboratories at locations including Uppsala in Sweden in 1957; Boston Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory in the US in 1961; and the Swiss Institute for Nuclear Research in Switzerland in 1984. The first dedicated clinical proton-therapy facility, which was driven by a low-energy cyclotron, was inaugurated in 1989 at the Clatterbridge Centre for Oncology in the UK. The following year, a dedicated synchrotron designed at Fermilab began operating in the US at the Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. By the early 2000s, the number of treatment centres had risen to around 20, and today proton therapy is booming: some 45 facilities are in operation worldwide, with around 20 under construction and a further 30 at the planning stage in various countries around the world (see

    Towards MEDICYC

    Modern proton therapy exploits an active technique called pencil-beam scanning, which creates a pointillist 3D tumour-volume painting by displacing the proton beam with appropriate magnets. Moreover, different irradiation ports are generally possible thanks to rotating gantries. This delivery technique is competitive with the most advanced forms of X-ray irradiation, such as intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), tomotherapy, cyberknife  and others, because it uses a smaller number of entering ports and hence reduces the overall absorbed dose to the patient.

    Owing to its high dose accuracy, proton therapy has historically been oriented towards the treatment of uveal melanoma and base-of-skull tumours, for which X-rays are less efficient. Today, however, proton therapy is used to treat any tumour type with a predilection for paediatric treatment. Indeed, by limiting the integral dose to an absolute minimum at the whole-body level, the side effects of radiotherapy occurring from radiation-induced cancer are reduced to a minimum.

    Particle physics, and CERN in particular, has played a key role in the success of proton therapy. One of the first facilities operating in Europe was MEDICYC – a 65 MeV proton medical cyclotron that was initially devoted to neutron production for cancer therapy. It was installed at the Centre Antoine Lacassagne (CAL) in Nice in 1991, where the first proton-therapy treatment for ocular melanoma was achieved in France. MEDICYC was designed by a small team of young CAL members hosted by CERN in the PS division, and the advice of the passionate experts there was key to the success of this accelerator. Preliminary studies for MEDICYC and the first test of the radiofrequency accelerating system were performed at CERN. Indeed, because the cyclotron was completed before the building that would house it, it was proposed to assemble the cyclotron magnet at CERN in the East Hall of the PS division, to perform the magnetic-measurement campaigns.

    During its 25 year operational lifetime, which began in June 1991, MEDICYC has reached a high level of reliability and successfully treated more than 5500 patients for various ocular tumours with a 96% local control rate. Owing to its high-dose-profile quality (0.8 mm dose fall-off beyond the Bragg peak, which is of the utmost importance for irradiating tumours close to the optical nerve), MEDICYC will continue to run its medium-energy proton-therapy programme. Moreover, CAL is investigating a MEDICYC improvement programme for increasing the beam intensities in view of new medical-isotope production at high energies with protons and deuterons.

    On 30 June this year, a new proton therapy centre called the Institut Méditerranéen de Protonthérapie (IMPT) was inaugurated at CAL, marking a new phase in European advanced hadron therapy. Joining MEDICYC as the driver of this new facility is a new cyclotron called the Superconducting Synchro-cyclotron (S2C2). This facility, which will expand the proton-therapy activity of MEDICYC, uses the latest technology to precisely target tumours while controlling the intensity and spatial distribution of the dose with fine precision. It is therefore ideal for treating base of skull, head and neck, sarcomas tumours and with priority oncopediatics tumours, and is expected to treat up to 250 patients per year in its first phase.

    CERN beginnings

    The new facility at CAL has its roots in a CERN-led project called EULIMA (European Light Ions Medical Accelerator) – a joint initiative at the end of the 1980s to bring the potential benefit of hadron therapy with light ions to cancer patients in Europe. Historically, CAL was involved with several European institutes to undertake feasibility studies for EULIMA. The feasibility study group was hosted by CERN and the main design option for the accelerator was a four-magnetic-sector cyclotron with a single large cylindrical superconducting excitation coil designed by CERN magnet-specialist Mario Morpurgo. CAL was selected as a candidate site to host the EULIMA prototype because it offered both adequate space in the MEDICYC building to house the machine and treatment rooms, while also offering an adequate supply of medical, scientific and technical staff in an attractive site.

    When the EULIMA came to an end in 1992, the empty EULIMA hall was available for future development projects in high-energy proton therapy. Therefore, in 2011, we were able to construct the new S2C2 facility at CAL at low cost. This compact, approximately 40 tonne facility provides proton beams with an energy of 230 MeV and delivers its dose using dynamic pencil-beam scanning (PBS). Its design is the result of a collaboration between AIMA (a spin-out company from CAL) and Belgian medical firm IBA.

    The facility comprises a beamline that feeds an R&D room for research teams, which have decided to commit themselves to a national research programme called France Hadron. The programme gathers several hadron-therapy centres based at Paris-Orsay, Lyon, Caen, Toulouse and Nice, in addition to several universities and national public research institutions, to co-ordinate and organise a national programme of research and training in hadron therapy. This programme aims at bringing nuclear-physics techniques to clinical research through dosimetry, radiation biology, imaging, control of target positioning, and quality-control instruments.

    As is the case for eye treatment at MEDICYC, the new facility will operate in co-operation with the Léon Bérard cancer centre in Lyon and other oncologic centres in the south of France. The new high-energy proton facility displays many innovative technological breakthroughs compared with existing systems. The accelerator is four-times lighter and consumes eight-times less energy than current machines for the same performance, and its maximum energy of 230 MeV can treat all tumours deep in the human body up to a depth of 32 cm. Its significantly lower cost represents a particularly attractive alternative compared with the global industrial standard. It also foreshadows a major development of proton therapy in the coming years, because compact synchrocyclotron technology is also being developed for the acceleration of alpha particles and heavier ions for hadron therapy.

    A major innovation is its rotating compact gantry, the first prototype of which was installed in the US in 2013. The new beamline has a mobility that allows operators to direct the radiation beam in different incidences around the patient and offer unprecedented compactness, reducing costs further. The new S2C2 and the future upgrading programme of MEDICYC embody the medical mission of CAL at large by bringing together advanced proton therapy for treating patients and scientific research activities with multidisciplinary teams of medical physicists and radiobiologists.


    Protonthérapie : l’ère de la précision

    La protonthérapie est une technique de radiothérapie innovante, qui peut traiter des tumeurs avec beaucoup plus de précision que les rayons X ou les rayons gamma. Le nombre de centres de traitement par protonthérapie augmente rapidement, et offre aux patients des traitements plus efficaces avec un risque de complications moindre. Au Centre Antoine Lacassagne, à Nice, une nouvelle installation de protonthérapie de haute énergie, qui tire son origine d’une collaboration avec le CERN vieille de 30 ans, se prépare à présent à traiter son premier patient. À performance égale, son accélérateur est quatre fois plus léger et consomme huit fois moins d’énergie que les machines actuelles, et il peut traiter tous types de tumeurs situées profondément à l’intérieur du corps humain.

    Joel Hérault, Pierre Mandrillon, François Demard and Richard Trimaud, Centre Antoine Lacassagne (CAL), Nice.

  3. A natural physicist?

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    (Shutterstock /

    I suspect that most physicists know someone like my neighbour Tony. Although Tony has not had the advantage of a formal scientific education, he has built up a wealth of knowledge in science in general and physics in particular by asking questions, listening carefully to the answers and, later, analysing and researching any points he hasn’t quite grasped.

    Not long ago, Tony popped into my house for coffee and a chat. It was obvious that he had something to say, and finally he could contain it no longer. “I’ve been doing some experiments with a potato hanging on a string from the washing line!” he beamed. Not feeling quite strong enough to ask him why he had a potato hanging on a string, I mumbled “really” in reply. Undismayed, Tony continued with a mounting enthusiasm and excitement that reminded me of myself many years ago. “I’ve discovered that it takes the potato the same time to swing 20 tiny swings as it does to swing 20 big swings,” he said. “I timed it using my pulse because my GP told me that my pulse is remarkably constant and is always the same every time he measures it.”

    This wasn’t the first time, of course, that I’d heard of intervals being measured in pulses rather than seconds. However, I didn’t want to dampen Tony’s sense of attainment, and I had to acknowledge his achievement in keeping track of a pulse count and a swing count simultaneously. “That’s a fine piece of research, Tony,” I whispered, and I gently introduced him to time periods, amplitudes and the formula for the behaviour of a simple pendulum.

    Far from being discouraged that his “discovery” was not, in fact, new, Tony was engrossed. He quickly spotted the relationship between the only two variables in the formula. “So if I shorten the string, it will swing faster?” “Exactly so,” I agreed, nodding approvingly. “So what would be the effect if I used a massive potato, or I went into space where there isn’t any gravity, and surely it would swing forever if there wasn’t any air?” he continued.

    These were all valid questions deserving answers and I was impressed by Tony’s awareness of things like air resistance. Before I could enlighten him, however, he was on his way over to the fireplace, where something had attracted his attention. I have a collection of “treasures” assembled during my life in physics, and they are now dispersed (frequently to my wife’s chagrin) around the house, garage, shed, greenhouse and garden. Tony had spotted my Newton’s cradle languishing on the hearth. “I’ve seen one of those in a science programme,” he announced. “Isn’t it something to do with the transfer of energy because all the balls are just touching to start with?”

    As if trying to verify some point he progressively displaced and released an increasing number of balls, observing the results with obvious joy and pleasure. “It seems to slow down and stop quite quickly!” I briefly mentioned friction, heat and sound as sources of energy loss, but chose not to point out that in the ideal set-up the balls would be not quite touching. Nor did I introduce Tony to the concepts of conservation of momentum, or shockwave propagation through intermediate balls, or mention the fact that the actions he was observing had quite complex mathematical derivations. Topics for future coffee breaks, perhaps.

    As Tony drained his cup, his eyes scanned the window ledge. “Wow, what’s that?” Following his gaze my focus ended up on another treasure: a Crookes radio-meter, its vanes gently rotating in the sunlight. He studied the device at close range for a full two minutes without speaking, before announcing “I think I know how it works! The black sides of the vanes absorb more of the sunlight than the white sides and that’s what makes them rotate. Is all the air taken out of the bulb though?” “Very impressive,” I replied. His theory was the early way of thinking, I explained, but in fact there isn’t a perfect vacuum inside the bulb. If there were, it wouldn’t work at all. Instead, the bulb contains a gas at very low pressure. Later theories, I added, were more complex and caused a lot of argument, animosity and unpleasantness at high level. Some big scientific names had a finger in this particular pie – Albert Einstein, Osborne Reynolds, Arthur Schuster and James Clerk Maxwell among them.

    With his terrific sense of curiosity, ability to absorb information and his natural determination to find answers, he would probably have made a great physicist

    Should I now mention thermal transpiration, I wondered? Perhaps not. “What did you say it was called?” Tony asked, nodding towards the bulb. “I didn’t,” I replied, “but it’s a Crookes radiometer.” “And who did you say invented it?” he asked, with an impish grin on his face. “I didn’t – and I’ll leave you to find that out for yourself, Tony,” I parried.

    At this point, Tony remembered that it was time to feed his cat. After he left, it occurred to me that with his terrific sense of curiosity, ability to absorb information and his natural determination to find answers, he would probably have made a great physicist. As he shuffled across the road, talking gently to himself and frequently turning to wave in my direction, I wondered what Tony would be doing now if he, and not I, had enjoyed the kind of educational opportunities from which I had benefited. Preparing for a landing on some distant planet, perhaps, or even penning an article for a prestigious scientific magazine. As I watched Tony’s door close, I could see the first few words of his article floating before my eyes: “I suspect that most physicists know someone like my neighbour Peter…”

  4. Once a physicist: Carol Monaghan

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    Former physics teacher Carol Monaghan is the Member of Parliament for Glasgow North West, UK

    What sparked your interest in physics?

    I think it was just a subject that came very naturally to me. I found it straightforward, certainly at school level – possibly it was different at degree level, but when I was at school everything in physics made perfect sense to me, as opposed to subjects like English, which I had to work very hard at. So it was really a matter of enjoyment – I didn’t choose physics with any thought to careers or what would give me the best job. In fact, when I went to Strathclyde University, there were three physics courses available and, if I’m being perfectly honest, I picked laser physics and optoelectronics because it sounded more impressive!

    Why did you decide to become a physics teacher?

    Well, actually what I really wanted to be was a fighter pilot. That was my dream job, and in later years I did actually get my private pilot’s licence. But my interactions with the Royal Air Force at a young age were not terribly positive: I went to a careers day with my Scottish Highers qualifications in physics and maths, and I was told I would make a great cook! I know other people have had that kind of response and have fought through it, but I felt, “If that’s the type of organization you are and that’s how you look at me, then actually I want nothing to do with you.” In terms of teaching, in the third year of my honours degree I realized that, while I found a lot of the physics quite tricky, there were people in my course who found it even trickier. I realized I could explain things to them in a simpler way and that this was something I had a bit of a talent for.

    Why did you decide to enter politics?

    I’ve always been interested in politics and particularly in the constitutional question of Scotland, but I never really considered it as a career – I have a healthy disdain for politicians, so I thought anybody who wanted to be one should automatically be barred from undertaking the process. The reason I am where I am is plain and simple: it’s because of the Scottish referendum [on independence in September 2014]. I campaigned very hard on the “Yes” side for an independent Scotland, and I think people expected that, following the “No” result, we would go back in our box and stop striving for the type of Scotland we wanted. But I’m afraid it’s one of these things where, if you really believe in something as much as many of us did, you’re going to keep working for it. After the referendum I went through a lot of emotions. First there was real bereavement for the Scotland that had been lost. Second there was anger that people had thrown away this opportunity. But the third emotion was a determination to keep up the fight, and that’s what led me to put my name forward. It was a snap decision, and when I won the nomination to become the Scottish National Party candidate in the constituency, it came as a surprise to my husband and family because it wasn’t something we had even discussed.

    What skills do you think are required to succeed as a politician?

    When you watch parliament on television, what you see are very skilled public speakers throwing clever phrases back and forth across the chamber. But the reality is that after these debates take place, most members will vote the way their whips tell them to. So actually I think the most important skills are the ones we develop in our constituencies, where being able to listen and empathize are really important. Those are skills I had as a teacher as well. Also, the problem-solving skills that all physicists possess are vitally important when you’re trying to work your way through the plethora of information that’s thrown at you in parliament.

    What is the biggest scientific challenge facing the country at the moment?

    The biggest issue is getting highly trained, highly qualified teachers into our schools. We can talk about problems with funding and with research and development and all of these things, but the reality is unless young people are coming through, then there are serious challenges facing the scientific community and the physics community in particular. In Scotland, a physics teacher must have some sort of physics or engineering qualification, but that’s not true in other parts of the UK, and I think that’s a real issue – I think you need specialists with a physics background who can inspire their students with a depth of knowledge behind them.

    Any advice for today’s students?

    Remember that you are really special. A physics degree is hugely respected and it shows that you have skills in many different areas – communication skills, problem-solving skills, investigative skills and so on. So when you’re applying for jobs and looking at future careers, remember employers are looking on you favourably, and have confidence in the degree you’ve achieved.

  5. Careers and people

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    Spotlight on: Jennifer Tour Chayes

    A polymath whose career has taken her, in her words, “from biology to physics to computer science to social sciences and back to biomedical sciences”, Jennifer Tour Chayes has never shied away from new challenges. A co-founder of Microsoft Research New England and Microsoft Research New York City, she is currently managing director and distinguished scientist at both institutions, which were designed to bring together computer scientists and social scientists to tackle problems related to network theory and algorithmic game theory. Chayes’ own contributions in these areas (and particularly the study of phase transitions in both mathematical physics and computing) were recently recognized by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, which awarded her its highest honour, the John von Neumann Lecture, in July.

    Chayes’ unconventional career path began at Wesleyan University, where she earned undergraduate degrees in both physics and biology, graduating first in her class. After obtaining her PhD in mathematical physics from Princeton University in 1983, she did postdoctoral work at Harvard University and Cornell University before joining the mathematics department at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1987. A decade later, she moved to Microsoft Research, where she co-founded its Theory Group. She continues to work on problems related to self-organized networks and the phase transitions that occur in them, while also serving on advisory boards for various academic and industry organizations.

    Movers and shakers

    Materials physicist John Colligon of the University of Huddersfield has received the British Vacuum Council’s Senior Prize and John Yarwood Medal.

    Superconductivity specialist Herbert Freyhardt of the University of Houston, US, has received a lifetime achievement award from the International Cryogenic Materials Conference in honour of his work on developing type II superconducting materials for practical applications.

    The Royal Society has awarded its oldest prize, the Copley Medal, to Peter Higgs for his fundamental contributions to particle physics.

    Chennupati Jagadish of the Australian National University in Canberra has won the IEEE Nanotechnology Council’s Pioneer Award for his research on compound semiconductor quantum dot and nanowire growth techniques.

    Chuck Kessel of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has won the 2015 Fusion Technology award.

    The Astronomical Society of the Pacific has given its highest honour, the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal, to Douglas Lin of the University of California, Santa Cruz, US in honour of his groundbreaking work in fields that include exoplanet astronomy and the behaviour of dark matter in dwarf spheroidal galaxies.

    Geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica of Harvard University, US, has won the Geological Society of America’s Arthur L Day Medal for his work on modelling (among other phenomena) the deformation of the Earth’s crust and its effects on the planet’s rotational stability.

    A member of the teams responsible for developing two of the world’s most commonly used types of microphones has been awarded the Gold Medal of the Acoustical Society of America. Gerhard Sessler, who is now a professor at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany, co-invented the electret condenser microphone in 1962 while working at Bell Laboratories. In 1983 he also helped develop a miniaturized version based on micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology.

  6. Building models, modelling buildings

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    As a software developer in a building performance analytics firm, Michael Bennett uses his physics skills to help design more environmentally friendly and cost-effective buildings

    Model career Michael Bennett writes software that models environmental factors of building design. (IES)

    When architects and engineers design new buildings, they have a lot of different factors to consider. Lighting, shading, wind direction, heating, ventilation, airflow and many other elements all need to be taken into account. However, the rising costs of heating and cooling – coupled with concerns about climate change – mean that the way buildings use energy is also an important part of their design.

    The company I work for, Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES), offers integrated software and consulting services that help architects, engineers and everyone else involved in the creation of a building to make better performing, sustainable and energy-efficient buildings. Our software analyses a number of different inputs (including climate data, building design, and the design of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, among others) to calculate a building’s energy consumption and performance and suggest the best possible design strategies.

    At first glance, it might seem strange that an astrophysicist like me would find a niche in this industry. However, in a nice coincidence, some of the heat processes (such as diffusion or convection) in stellar models that were relevant to my PhD are also relevant for buildings. In a few cases, the algorithms are directly applicable. For example, the finite difference methods used to calculate diffusion of heat across a wall can also be used to calculate matter transport in the interior of a star. I think it is amazing and wonderful how parallels can sometimes be drawn between celestial bodies and things closer to home.

    Putting core knowledge to use

    Following my PhD at the University of Keele I was unsure whether to pursue a career in academia or industry. I found doing research at the frontier of current knowledge exciting and interesting, and I was fascinated by the software models that are part of such research. However, I also wanted job security and the ability to settle somewhere and call it home. So, after some careful consideration, I started looking at industry.

    This was in 2010, however, and with the UK economy in recession, there didn’t seem to be much demand for physics graduates. Most of my colleagues pursued academic careers, became physics teachers or found themselves in careers where physics was less relevant. Disheartened, I reluctantly concluded that in order to get a job, I would need to focus more on the value of my mathematical ability and transferable skills, rather than the value of the core physics knowledge I obtained during my degree.

    The turning point came when, after several unsuccessful interviews with software and engineering companies, I signed up for recruitment agencies specializing in science and software related careers. Most of these agencies did not seem very motivated to find me work, but one of the exceptions, ECM, put me in touch with IES. When I found out that they were based in Glasgow, I was shocked, as I had mainly been looking for jobs near my friends and family in London. Nevertheless, I went for an interview and was happy to find that IES was looking for physics graduates to work on software related to heat transfer. It was clear from the interview that my core physics knowledge would be valued and so, after some thought, I accepted the job and moved to Scotland.

    A model assignment

    Although I am a software engineer, almost all of my daily tasks require physics knowledge and skills. Before I can start designing software, for example, I need to understand the model that is being implemented and identify its limitations and capabilities. This requires me to retrieve, understand and critique scientific literature – a task that often entails a considerable amount of mathematics, especially when the model involves fluid transport (usually air or water, but sometimes refrigerant or other substances), heat exchangers, convection or solar radiation.

    Once I am confident that I understand the technologies and processes I am modelling, my next task is to develop proof-of-concept models, so that I can identify possible complications or unusual situations that might arise. For example, certain renewable technologies involve convective heat transfer from a surface into an air stream at a flow rate relative to some design flow rate for the system. What if a user specifies a very low design flow rate or doesn’t specify one at all? We will need to consider natural convection, transition to turbulence and sensible default values for flow rates in the absence of important input data. Preliminary models of such things can identify issues such as these.

    The next step is to write (and then test) the software code. I also perform validation studies in which I compare the output of our thermal models with real building data. Sometimes I perform uncertainty studies, too, to check how robust the models are.

    Coding and communication

    Because my role is “client-facing”, I regularly keep our clients updated on progress, and I also give presentations regarding the outcomes of our studies. Communication skills are essential as we often work with people who have had little or no exposure to analytical and numerical models of physical phenomena (especially the physics of buildings), and who therefore find such models incredibly complicated. Being able to break complex scenarios down into something that is simple to understand, and then build on that in order to describe the situation more fully, is very important.

    As for the coding part of my job, I learned most of the basics required to write software code during the last year of my physics undergraduate degree. However, I also developed these skills considerably during my postgraduate studies and in my spare time, so if you are interested in a career in software engineering, I recommend spending some of your free time programming. There are many amazing open-source resources on the Internet and tutorial websites that can help you learn, and if you choose a project that sounds fun, you will be more motivated to continue working on it. For example, you could try making a simple computer game or a “physics sandbox” tool in a high-level language (like Python or Lua). Then, if you want more of a challenge, you can go on to experiment with lower-level languages such as C++ or Java. There is a huge demand for programming skills at the moment and they are incredibly useful for many things (including science).

    While communication skills are important, you don’t have to be an amazing performance artist or conversationalist to be able to communicate your ideas effectively. If communication isn’t your strong point, practise! Give short presentations to others, form discussion groups, talk about technical topics with people you know and gauge their reactions. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback so you can identify areas where you can improve. There are plenty of opportunities to do this during a physics degree and it can even be fun if you’re discussing something you are passionate about. It will also help you with job interviews.

    My advice is to be active, open and motivated. I’ve found that the best aspect of my job is the knowledge that my experiences, science knowledge and skills are useful to people. After spending many years studying physics and mathematics, it is flattering when people need my help and rewarding when I can see how their jobs are made easier following my input. It is also great to be able to continue studying physics and learning new skills as I do my job; nothing feels static or predictable and the projects are always varied and intellectually stimulating. My experience shows that there are great physics jobs out there if you look for them.