Realising the Benefits of Accelerator Science

Dr Alex Alexandrova was a Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow within the Department of Physics at Liverpool University / Cockcroft Institute between 2012 and 2015, and she belonged to the LA3NET (Lasers for Applications at Accelerator facilities) training network. She has recently co-founded technology company D-Beam. Her project has developed a better method for characterising high velocity targets, allowing precise measurements even in radiation-exposed environments. Alex is excited by the potential of commercialising the discoveries made within the Marie Skłodowska Curie programmes, something that interested Marie Curie herself.
On the 150th anniversary of the birth of twice Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie we asked Alex what inspired her to study accelerator science and follow in the footsteps of this great scientist.

Motivation to study accelerators

I'm a goal-oriented person who wants to see results, maybe not immediately but in the near future. I have always been interested in seeing direct applications for the work that I'm doing rather than in new research where I may never see how it's going to be applied.
I have noticed that often a research group will develop some instrument or technique, they use it and then move on.
I thought it was such a shame that people put in so much effort, and when the grant money has run out no one will take it further. Especially as a couple of years later, someone else will have the same need and develop something similar.
There are more than 30,000 particle accelerators around the world and their uses range from medical applications to studying the universe; the tools for studying their properties are more than just an essential part of the particle accelerator itself. For example, if it is a proton beam being used for cancer treatment, it is important to know the properties of the beam being focused on the tumour.
The product I am developing is an optical beam loss monitor that allows you to see if there is a loss of particles along the particle accelerator, which can cause damage to the machine and reduce the quality of the beam. It will save money in terms of maintaining the equipment and improving the quality of the beam. As with any light beam (for example from a light bulb), the particle beam will be more intense if you can focus it, or give other properties which can be used for something useful.

Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellowship brings other benefits

I came to Liverpool University after completing a master’s degree working with lasers. I saw the Marie Skłodowska Curie fellowship and it sounded super interesting, as in the LA3NET training programme I would combine two different fields, lasers and accelerators. My project was to build a sensor that would measure very high velocity gas jets. Within three years the aim was to go from concept to prototype.
Within this fellowship we had lots of training. I learnt a lot about particle accelerators and also gained a profile for myself, by networking and getting to know and learn about different people.
I began to think that the more fascinating career path for me was to join a company that worked on the edge between two different sciences – maybe biophysics. This is where and when people with different expertise and completely different knowledge come together and produce something out of the blue and completely new.
Then, at the end of the third year, I was talking with my supervisor about career paths, and he mentioned a business idea. I thought: “wow, this can be a way to make this job for myself. I can try to start this business and see how it goes, and I can invite different people to work with me on different projects. Maybe we will come up with something really great.”
I started doing another fellowship, the RSE Enterprise Fellowship, which is supported by the Science & Technology Facilities Council. It was building up my entrepreneurial skills so I've met lots of different people. It's kind of turned my view of science towards more business oriented ways and a more practical approach. Now I am always looking for applications and thinking how the research can be used by the industry.
Something I have noticed during my career as a researcher is that lots of laboratories do similar things but they don’t really interact. The networking in LA3NET provides people with opportunities to get to know each other, to enrich their science and their knowledge in the area where they want to build something. We are trying to do the same with our business, D-Beam, to provide tools and solutions so companies and researchers can just plug in and use them without repeating the same mistakes.
I love science: I still do research quite a lot, and I like being in the lab, but at the same time I'm thinking “this is a great idea, where can we use it? Can we apply it here?” It's broadened my mind.
The Marie Skłodowska Curie fellowship gave me this opportunity to have this huge network of people, these ideas, see how people can actually work, and produce great things.

Being a woman in science and business

Back in Russia I found that in my laboratory, the world was a bit biased, so I had some trouble being a woman. But as soon as I proved my point and they saw that I knew quite a lot and sometimes even more than them, the men would appreciate my input.
When I moved to the UK I found that here it's more gender equal – people listen to you no matter how you look, how you dress, if you're wearing a skirt or jeans.
However, I have found that being a young person is not that easy, because I'm going for different business meetings and network events. If there are just start-ups, lots of young people are present, but if it's talking about something serious it’s usually talking to men much older than me. Sometimes it’s quite challenging to focus their attention on what I'm trying to say.
I don't know the experience of men – I'm sure they have their own troubles as well!

Inspired by Marie Curie

What I found fascinating was that Marie Curie taught herself everything, starting from nothing, not even knowing the language of the country where she was studying, to become a leading scientist.
She was always curious and challenging herself in different directions.
I call it restless mind; you're always looking for something, which is probably why she became involved in industry because she reached a certain point and wondered what to do next. I found this inspiring.