Helen Czerski, Post-doctoral researcher in shock and impact physics

Job Title: Post-doctoral researcher in shock and impact physics

Organisation: Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge

Qualifications: MSci in Natural Sciences (Physics) from Churchill College, Cambridge University. PhD in shock and explosives physics, University of Cambridge

I’m a physicist specialising in what materials do when they are hit at very high speeds (up to about 2000 mph). Most of my work is experimental, but I need to understand the mathematical theories behind what I’m doing so that I can design good experiments to find out what is going on.

My job is never boring because I’m always solving puzzles …. how I can build an experiment to measure a specific quantity, how I can construct a theory that might describe what is going on, and lots more besides. The best bit is definitely the variety and the fact that I don’t have to spend entire days stuck at my desk. When I get restless, I get up and go and do a practical experiment.

I’ve always liked playing with numbers in my head and I like the mathematical bits of physics. Maths is such a powerful way of describing how things are – you can really look at an equation and visualise very clearly what it means in physical terms in your head. It communicates what is happening very quickly and very elegantly. The parallels between the maths in different areas of research are fascinating as well – you can really see the similarities between things that might seem entirely different on the surface.

The other fun thing about my job is communicating with other people, sometimes to discuss a theory with them and to bounce ideas off them, and sometimes to present my results to a wider scientific audience. It’s really exciting when two people put their heads together and produce a combination of ideas – it’s like playing tennis. One person has an idea and the other bounces it back with something added to it. It’s a really nice way of solving problems.

I see the world as full of physics toys that I can play with if I know a little bit about them to start with. To do my job you need a lot of curiosity and a mind that is open to new ideas… but that’s easy because there are so many good things to ask questions about!