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News > Travel Fund > Old Girls' Travel Fund 2021 winner, Lois Heslop

Old Girls' Travel Fund 2021 winner, Lois Heslop

Class of 2017 alumna, Lois Heslop was awarded the 2021 Travel Scholarship. Lois travelled to Italy to work as a researcher in physics at the University of Bologna

This summer I travelled to Italy to work as a researcher in physics at the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the world. Bologna, an ancient city in Northern Italy, is steeped in culture, history, and scholarship – the University, founded in 1088 by a guild of students, saw the first woman to be awarded a university degree and the first to be a university professor. The University’s characteristic russet-red Bologna stone buildings are mostly located in the north of town but given that many departments are located outside of the main university area, the whole city has a lively, student feel.

I arrived in late August, when the Italian summer heat was about to turn, and settled into my apartment in the university district. By happy coincidence, I was able to rent an apartment with two of my friends from Oxford, my home university, who had graduated and decided to move to Italy. I only had a couple of days to settle in before starting work in the Bologna Plasma Physics Laboratory, where I spent my placement.

I was offered this fantastic research opportunity back in September 2020, with the big disclaimer that there was no guarantee I could go, given ever-changing travel rules and onand-off shutdowns in Italy. In fact, when I arrived, the Italian team had only been back in the lab for a few months, so there was a great atmosphere, and I had a very friendly welcome.

My main tutor at Oxford, Professor Gianluca Gregori, is very highly regarded in the field of laser-produced plasmas and he has colleagues all over the world – so when he offered me the opportunity to go to Italy to work in plasma physics, I jumped at it. Educational opportunities have been few and far between over the last two years, especially those involving travel, and I was determined to make it happen.

The lab I worked in, located at the Faculty of Engineering, was a cross-disciplinary research group into plasma sources for industrial applications. Plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter (other than solid, liquid and gas). Plasma is a gas of ions (atoms that have had an electron stripped away), and it is the most abundant state of ordinary matter in the universe. Plasma is everywhere – from huge plasma-filled stars to the plasma used in neon signs, and it’s an exciting and rapidly developing field. The plasma I generated were cold plasmas (i.e. at room temperature), useful for sanitising food and agricultural processes, for modifying materials and nanoparticles, and even for dentistry and medical applications.

The plasma device I was working on uses a technique known as SDBD (Surface Dielectric Barrier Discharge), which uses a high voltage source to generate plasma which can be used to produce ozone and nitrogen dioxide, which are gases used to treat water and organic compounds on an industrial scale. I operated the experiment on my own and would report my findings back to my supervisor daily, and present and analyse the data using the high-level coding language MATLAB. It was a tricky task, but we were able to gather enough data to produce a research paper on our findings, on which I will be an author. To be an author on a public research paper as an undergraduate would be incredibly exciting and quite rare, so I am hoping we manage to gather the evidence to submit it to journals in the next few months.

My trip wasn’t all work and no play - my team - pictured below - was very social, and it was brilliant to be able to work with two other women in science, which is quite uncommon in physics and engineering, especially at doctoral and post-doctoral level. In my physics degree at Oxford, I’m one of only about 25 women in a year of 180, so I’m used to feeling in a minority, but it was great to have some inspiring female role models in Bologna. The lab group introduced me to Bologna’s amazing food and drink, we drank lots of espresso, and even played volleyball together!

While I worked long hours in the lab, I had evenings and weekends off, and made the most of being in such an amazing city. I made friends from all over the world – from Russia to Syria to Chile and the USA. I communicated in a combination of English, Spanish, French and Italian – which improved greatly throughout the trip. I really enjoyed being pushed to speak languages other than English and finding common ground with people from all different countries – I very quickly got over my embarrassment about not being fluent and managed to have conversations successfully.

I was also able to take cultural trips to other cities in Italy – I took the high-speed Frecciarossa trains to Verona and Venice, and even made it to the tiny country of San Marino, which is not far from Bologna. As a choral scholar at The Queen’s College, Oxford, I sing almost daily, so it was wonderful to be able to hear amazing Church music in the birthplace of composers such as Monteverdi and Gabrieli. At a personal level, it was also a privilege to see so much of my own cultural heritage preserved in the Jewish Quarters in Venice and Bologna (known as the Ghetto Ebraico). It was a stark reminder of the lives that Jews were forced to have during the Renaissance, so immaculately preserved to this day.

As I reach the end of my undergraduate degree, I’m looking to the future and considering applying for PhDs, and this trip has certainly given me an incentive to pursue physics. One of the things that so many young people have lost out on in the past two years are educational opportunities, so I am incredibly grateful to the FHS Alumni Travel Fund for providing me with this one. My wonderful adventure would not have happened without Francis Holland. 

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