Holly Edwards

Holly Edwards

Image: Holly Edwards, 4th year PhD student, Department of Physics and Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy

One Sunday dinner with my family when I was 12, I declared I would be the first Dr Edwards in the family. I had always loved Maths and Physics from a very young age as my Dad and Grandad were engineers, and so would often help me with my homework and tell me how everything works. They were definitely my biggest influence up until sixth form, where I was accepted onto a Nuffield project at the University of Liverpool with the late and incredible Dr Barry King. This was the pre-Higgs boson era and he had created a scavenger hunt in real and simulated data from ATLAS at CERN, where we would have to ‘discover’ the Higgs boson. This was a life changing summer for me, as I wanted to be a part of the team that would help do this research. Unfortunately, the year I started University, they did their job too well and found it a few months in: “sigh.”

What was also quite eye opening was that the project had an even split of male and female A Level students. I went to an all girl’s school where luckily physics was popular for my year group (approximately 70/150 took the subject), so I was unsure of how this would turn out beyond my own school. The first year of my integrated Master of Physics course at the University of Liverpool was another story. The female population of my course dropped as low as 10% in the final year, which honestly didn’t hinder my opportunities personally as a female physicist, but I think it’s worrying how low the amount of women in physics there are in general.

During my undergraduate course, experiments were my favourite and I wasn’t particularly good at coding. I did later discover that particle physics probably wasn’t the right fit for me, and I came into my own in the final year project. I knew I wanted to do something that would have more ‘real world’ applications. I was unsure whether I wanted to stay in academia or go onto R&D in industry, so I decided on solar energy research at the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy. For this project, I grow the samples of the material that would be used for a solar cell myself, and then perform experiments to see if it would be suitable, and how to make it better. I loved it so much that I was in the lab every day, and even though I’m not the smartest or most academic person, I got my highest mark of my degree in that module and this is where I could shine. My supervisor offered me a PhD position in his lab and gave me freedom to choose my own research project. I decided to carry on working with this material, to build on the year of research I had already performed.

I’m now in my 4th year of the PhD course and I have had the most amazing experiences and learned so many transferrable skills. One year, I was working on a 6 month collaborative project with an academic from IIT New Delhi, India and I got to visit for a few weeks so we could perform measurements there that we could not do in our facility, and vice versa. There were also international conferences where you can meet other academics in similar fields to problem solve or collaborate on future projects. I’ve also been able to do a session at the Diamond Light Source Synchrotron, this time on a collaborative project with industry. Yes, PhD’s are difficult and you have to work hard and be dedicated, but if it’s your passion you will do well.