My Internship Experience: Volcanologist to Science Start-up
Ery Hughes describes the opportunity she had to apply her volcanology knowledge in a science start-up.
I’ve always enjoyed getting my hands dirty in science projects, and rarely shy away from the chance to gain new skills. Thus the opportunity to do an internship at the science incubator, Unit DX (Bristol), seemed like a productive way to spend some time out between finishing my PhD and starting a post-doc. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure exactly where’d I’d fit in as a volcanologist – I didn’t have any wet lab chemistry, practical engineering or software development skills, but I thought it would be useful regardless.
I was placed in QLM, an innovative start-up using single photon detectors to create gas sensors that are light enough to mount on aerial drones. Their current project is building and testing a drone-based methane sensor to detect leaks on oil and gas pipelines. Naturally, this led to the highlight of my internship: Getting to help on one of their first data collecting field trials and realising that the technology could be applied to volcano monitoring!
The internship itself was set up by a start-up called Spin Up Science. This meant, on top of the direction given by QLM, I also had fantastic support from the Spin Up Science team. I was lucky to be given the opportunity to attend their ‘PhD to Consulting’ course during my internship, which involved delivering a real 1.5 day contract for a scientific company. The course was brilliant and gave me a hands-on experience of science consulting, which I had not been previously exposed to during my PhD. Being placed in an entrepreneurial environment at Unit DX really added to the experience too – being surrounded by so many start-ups was not only inspirational, but a great way to see how start-ups work, and a fantastic chance to see what the science business community is like in Bristol.
I was at QLM during an exciting time for them: they had two field trials planned to test their methane sensor. The first trial was at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), where they imaged controlled methane leaks from both the ground and a cherry picker (to simulate drone measurements). The second trial was at a landfill site where they imaged the ground from a drone to see whether they would be able to use the technology to look for methane leaks in this type of environment. It was exciting to get hands-on experience with their equipment and to see some of the first data being collected! When not out on trials, I helped process data and spent time researching market opportunities in geothermal and volcanology applications.
It was great to get the opportunity to work with a completely different set of people to who I’d normally interact with: QLM consisted of engineers and quantum/optical physicists, who don’t tend to pop into an Earth Sciences department. The best parts of the experience for me were watching QLM create their prototype gas sensor system and how warmly I was welcomed into the QLM family from the very start, which was wonderful. I would definitely recommend taking the opportunity to do an internship during or just after your PhD (so much so I did two!).
Internships are a great way to have a go at something different, whether it’s developing a new set of skills or experiencing a new environment, which can surely only make you a stronger candidate for future positions you apply for. They acted as a welcomed break during my PhD: time I found useful to evaluate the project and foster motivation for not only my return to the PhD, but also for whatever came after. I know I personally wanted to pursue academia, but I didn’t want to rush straight into it, so this has been a great chance to take some productive time out. I really loved working with the people at QLM and Spin Up Science and hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to continue collaborating with their teams in the near future. And maybe one day I’ll take the gas sensor to a volcano!