Alfred Hopkinson

A PhD student at InterCat studying the formation of organic molecules on carbonaceous grains.
A PhD student at InterCat studying the formation of organic molecules on carbonaceous grains.

Introduction Videos

Do you want to know more about the type of things Julia and I are researching about? Or do you want to know a little more about how we observe the interstellar medium and how it was first discovered?

If so, I have made three videos which you can watch here!

If you liked these, there are more videos and other details about what InterCat is up to on the website.

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How to try to make the most of this experience

I do not have access to the stunning vistas of the beaches of Brazil but instead during this lockdown I have been in the green rolling hills of the UK, usually with my dog. However, my mind and work has all been focused in Denmark and so I, like Julia, have had to adjust to make the most of working at a distance.

My Dog Polly who often disturbs me while I try to work. Yet another odd thing to get used to working from home!

When it became clear I couldn’t get over to Denmark any time soon to start my PhD I was left with a choice. I could either delay starting and hope it gets better or start at a distance and try to make the best of it. I chose the latter and have been trying to get involved in my studies and with the group as much as possible. As a part of my PhD I have to take part in some masters and PhD courses to further my knowledge and I thought that since they were online this would be a productive thing for me to do. I was a little late starting in the semester but still had a good choice of courses and wanted to challenge myself by doing some courses I hadn’t really done much of before.

I chose to do a practical programming and numerical methods course as I had done some python coding before, a student colloquium, a Visualize your Science course and finally a star and planet formation course. I have at this point completed the student colloquium which required me to present a topic in the field of science that I found interesting for forty minutes (I showed a slide of this in the 2nd blog post!). These are all courses I have not had direct experience with as you can probably tell with my drawing of a drill I had to do for the visualize science course.

Drawing of a drill done by Alfred for his Visualize your Science course. Made using Inkscape.

I concluded that courses like this would be possible to do at a distance, are productive and would be no harder than doing it in person in Denmark. I was wrong about this as it does provide some challenges I had not considered before that point. The biggest challenge has been the feeling of isolation as in that moment you have a Sisyphean task ahead of you and no one to your right or left to ask for guidance. I want to stress for anyone reading this who is studying that although it can seem this way it is not the case. Try to speak to your colleagues about the work and always ask the course leader for some assistance as they also realize the difficulties of remote working. The course I have really enjoyed doing the star and planet formation course and I think a large part of that is down to it being run by Rijutha and Gabi who make feel like they are there to support your learning. There is only a small group of us doing the course which has also helped as we talk between each other to support our shared learning (which often involved Laura doing most of the explaining!).

Another challenge I have encountered has been organizing my time when at home and being in a different time zone. It is hard working at home and Julia has already given her tips for staying motivated and productive so I won’t talk too much about this but I will mention my own difficulties with the time difference. I am out from the time in Denmark by one hour which may not seem like a lot and it isn’t but it’s something that has almost tripped me up a few times already such as when I almost gave out the wrong time to everyone for my colloquium. If I hadn’t have noticed I would have presented to an empty zoom room! My advice for this is to stick entirely in one time zone. So for example I now add everything into my work calendar at the English times so I don’t have to think about the time difference every time we have a meeting.

The biggest piece of advice I have learnt from this experience has been to try not to worry too much and use this as an opportunity to try something new and a bit different. I have found my practical programming course very difficult due to lack of previous experience but it has been very interesting and I feel I have developed a new skill which I would never have thought to do before. I have enjoyed doing all my courses in different ways and would encourage people not to look at the disruptions of this pandemic to ‘normal work’ as a total waste of time but as an opportunity to try something new and to learn in different ways. As proof of me learning new skills and putting what I say into practice here is the graphical abstract I have made as part of my learning. It isn’t perfect or even finished but I am proud of what I have achieved so far!

A work in progress graphical abstract.

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Starting a PhD overseas : Introduction and purpose of the blog

I will follow Julia’s advice and not start my essay with a cliché, but instead, say I am also glad I was chosen for this PhD. During my third year of being an undergraduate I realized that I had, much to my shock at the time, started to enjoy doing research and found myself staying long hours in the lab. After this my desire to continue this new found passion for experimental research continued and I wanted to develop it further. However, when the pandemic started I was unsure whether or not I would be selected for any PhD position I applied for and assumed the most productive thing I would have done that year was to learn how to fish (for those interested I am still a shoddy fisherman).

Much to my surprise, after speaking to my now supervisor Liv Hornekær, I was invited to come to Aarhus to visit InterCat and learn about what they do. I met the team I now work with and helped people recreate the conditions of interstellar space in the Ultra High Vacuum (UHV) chambers. It was brilliant to be back working in a physics laboratory after so much time away and I really enjoyed my time there. I even got to spend some down time getting to know the city, I ate a meal with Rijutha and Gabi, and went to Frederik’s PhD defense among other things. This was a world away from the second wave struck UK I had left. During this I was offered the PhD position but after a month I had to return to the UK which ended up trapping me on the wrong side of the North Sea.

So after getting the PhD position to come to Aarhus to research if carbonaceous grains act as a catalyst for complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium, I was stuck in the UK. This was very difficult to comprehend and I felt cut adrift. However, like Julia said, “we have to be creative”, and so instead of sitting around continuing to try and learn to fish, I have tried to be productive. Julia and I have been attending InterCat meetings and seminars which has been a good way to begin to feel part of the group. Along with this I have started a few different courses, such as a student colloquium, where I will in the next few weeks present a seminar about the history of the interstellar medium. This involved researching into the interstellar medium and its history from the ancient Greeks who believed there was a sphere around the world with ‘fixed stars’ to the modern research we do at InterCat.

The title page of Alfred’s student colloquium

Another element of doing a PhD remotely is to make this blog discussing what the journey from home country to place of research during a pandemic has entailed. We aim to talk about our shared experiences to show you what it is like to undertake a doctorate under the current conditions. For any students who read this and are considering starting a PhD I hope reading about what the experienced has been like for us will help you decide what to do and know what to expect. For me, I wanted to do this to be a part of a team and contribute despite being in a different country.

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