European Space Agency: my summer internship experience

Tara is a final year student here at Edinburgh. She wrote her first blogpost about applying to the European Space Agency (ESA). Here is her second blogpost where she talks about what she did and what she learnt about the job, the ESA, the people – and herself.

“With my traineeship at ESA slowly coming to an end, it’s time to look back at the many memorable experiences made and interesting people I met. In the 2 months that I stayed in Darmstadt, a 20 min train ride from Frankfurt, I learnt about the professionalism in the agency and how important good communication between colleagues is. I learnt what it’s like to work independently besides one of the best mission analysts in the world and also receive constructive criticism once in a while.

My job at ESA was to improve an orbit determination software called DITAN, which was used for low-thrust trajectories such as the mission BepiColombo to Mercury in 2018.


Artist’s impression of BepiColombo in front of Mercury. Credit: ESA – P. Carril

Naturally as an Astrophysics student I was afraid that my programming wasn’t up to scratch but luckily I could pick up the most common routines  fairly quickly (so many nested if loops!). With the help of my very patient supervisor I learnt how to make code more elegant and use as little of it as possible. When I wasn’t debugging the Fortran 5000-plus-liner (yes, in the space sector everything gets recycled, including ancient programs from the 70s) tea breaks would take up second priority, as many staff would joke. The canteen was the meeting place of different sections, ages and nationalities.

Besides work, other topics of interest such as politics (Brexit more than once) and even personal bests at the last triathlon as part of ESA’s sports clubs were discussed. Similar to all the societies and clubs Edinburgh University offers, ESA has a smaller range of activities to make different nationalities feel at home. During one of the after-work wakeboarding events I noticed once again that ESA really supports a good working atmosphere and also emphasises positive and open thinking whilst not forgetting to be critical as well.

Sharing an office with 4 trainees and contractors from Hungary, Belgium and Germany also gave me an insight into their work, although some of their French conversations as one of ESA’s working languages surpassed my 6-weeks taster course level. Nevertheless, on multiple occasions we helped each other with technical issues or generally exchanged ideas and experiences. It was astounding that even though they had come from totally different walks of life their technical knowledge and the art of communicating this in an easily comprehendible way was exceptional. Not only in my department did I notice the conscientious and composed way in which trainees and staff would listen and respond.

As most of the staff are international, ESA hosts intercultural events such as the annual fun run, running 5 or 10 km with or without a costume as well as a BBQ, which is themed after a different country every year. This year they chose the UK and Northern Ireland, which the organisers claimed to have chosen before the Brexit campaign started (or they were testing all the British staff’s humour). Costumes ranged from business men, to green leprechauns or simply tea bags and was, besides the roasting temperatures that day, an all-round fun activity. The BBQ didn’t disappoint either and offered all sorts of traditional cuisine, alcoholic beverages such as Pimm’s and a performance by Scottish country dancers and a bagpipe player. And there was me in Germany, thinking I could escape the ever-present bagpipe-melodies known from Edinburgh.


Credit : ESA – Stefano de Padova

Another insightful event was the informal ‘space dinner’ with guest speaker Rolf Densing, director of operations at ESA, who spoke about the future in space and invited all guests to have a chat with him during the German dinner. Surprisingly his predecessor and German Astronaut Thomas Reiter made an appearance too. Although I missed my chance to speak to him, I overheard a story of him at the dinner table when he was sipping his morning coffee and let it drop in mid air still thinking he was in space! These little stories besides many others were exchanged during the meal and made the company even more enjoyable.

At the establishment I work at, the European Space Operations Centre, Security takes an important role since million-euro heavy satellites are operated from here. This meant I was obliged to wear a badge with my name and picture at all times and was checked every morning by the international security guards, who I’m sure knew everyone’s nationality off by heart and greeted them with “Guten Morgen”, “Buongiorno”, etc. Equally the staff returned the good deed with respect and a bright smile.

Possibly whoever is reading this thinks I’m exaggerating my appraisal for ESA, but with a 100% success rate for all its launched missions, its expertise is world leading and I couldn’t have imagined a better placement with such a lively and proactive vibe to it.

If you can, I would always recommend gaining some work experience in the summer, since it not only gives you a head start in job applications but also teaches you a lot about if the job is right for you in the first place. That said, I’m considering a career in the space sector more than ever before and could imagine working as a trainee for ESA or in the space industry after graduating. Equipped with my new-found motivation to pursue this goal I’m curious which challenges await when I return to Edinburgh!”

Bright Recruits – IOP recruitment site

This website has some great videos giving you an insight into what jobs involve and where they are. Here is just one of them. Bright Recruits also advertises job for physicists in a wide range of academic and industrial sectors. You can search by specialism, there is an Employer A-Z and a search for graduate jobs. Good careers advice too!

Find more here

Pizza and presentation panic

Edinburgh physics student Zoe offers her latest blog post from her internship in Coherent in California where free pizza is a nice incentive!  For any of you who find giving presentations just a little bit scary, she has some very savvy advice.

At the end of my internship, I will also be required to host one engineering seminar.  My presentation will last for about 30 minutes and it will include a summary of my internship and the obtained results.

I won’t hide that at the beginning I was dreading the idea of this presentation, since I don’t have a lot of experience and talking in front of people is a skill I haven’t practised as much.  To be fair, I have presented something twice at University during the end of my third year, once for my “Research Methods in Physics” and once in my “Experimental Physics” class.  However, they were both 10 minute long presentations and they differed from the one I am supposed to give at Coherent by an important factor:  the audience.  Presenting in front of your class and professors is quite different than presenting in front of unknown people who certainly know much more than you on the topic at hand.  It will be a challenge for me to stand there and speak with confidence but the more the time passes the more excited I get to do it.

For anyone who might be feeling the same way as me, here’s my advice:  Think about it as a good practice opportunity for a skill that is undoubtedly extremely useful and valuable in any kind of profession.  And the best part about it is that we really have nothing to lose from it.

Read the full post here. The Careers Service has advice on presentations too.

Feature job vacancy: Scientist – Toshiba Medical Visualization Systems

Edinburgh-based company are looking for physics and maths graduates for this role.

TMVS, based in Edinburgh, employs over 120 staff to design and develop advanced medical visualization software. Their staff comprises software engineers, scientists, clinician specialists, researchers and verification engineers. Their software works with Toshiba’s world-leading scanner products and is sold all over the world.

Toshiba Medical Systems Corporation is an independent group company of Toshiba Corporation. The company is a global leading provider of diagnostic medical imaging systems and comprehensive medical solutions, such as CT scanners, X-ray, ultrasound, Nuclear Medicine , MRI equipment and information systems for medical institutions.

Closing date 22 July

More details here

Jobs in space

Great post from my colleague Matt Vickers about jobs in space. If you are keen to know more about Optics in Space, the June issue of Physics World has a good supplement on Optics & Photonics. Physics World has a series of supplements focussing on different areas of physics. They introduce you to the main players, academic and industry, often working in partnership in these areas. The articles and adverts give you a good idea who is working in these fields so great for making speculative applications.

The Careers Service Blog

Many thanks to my colleague Matt Vickers for this blog post which gives an overview of jobs in the space sector and details of an event taking place next week – Rebecca

From the 11th-17th July 2016 the famous Farnborough International Airshow takes place in Hampshire, England.  This biennial event (it alternates each year with the Paris Airshow) combines both a public event and trade show – both on a huge scale.  According to organisers, the 2014 Farnborough show attracted orders and commitments worth US $204 bn.

Focused on the aerospace sector and its supply chain, the trade show includes significant presence from companies and organisations involved in the global space industry.  The show’s trade website includes pages specifically covering the space industry, and shows the infographic below.  If this gets you excited about jobs in space and you want to find out more about the organisations behind the numbers, use the searchable exhibitor list to…

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2.1? 2.2? Graduate jobs for physicists

Gradcracker is currently advertising some great jobs for physicists with AWE. Vacancies include:

  • computational physicist
  • material modelling physicist
  • pulsed power physicist
  • radiation effects physicist

Leonardo, YouView, Brett Martin, KBR and National Instruments are all recruiting through Gradcracker too.

Not all organisations ask for a minimum 2.1 and some don’t specify but they will be looking for strong motivation, interest and a tailored application.

If you are on track for a 2.2, look at Brett Martin, KBR, National Instruments, for example. Start researching small and medium sized organisations too.

Jobs for physicists on Gradcracker

Showcasing opportunities for Women in Physics

In March 2016, six undergraduate students from the College of Science & Engineering attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics held at the University of Oxford. Now in its second year, the Conference aims to help undergraduate women continue in physics by showcasing options for their educational and professional futures. Find out more – and 3rd year physicist Emma Stam telling us about her experience here.

Physics & food: the physics in your crisps & coffee

crisps coffeeA great post by , Regional Officer, Yorkshire & North East. Institute of Physics

“Professor Peter Lillford, who spent much of his career at Unilever Research, said he had seen physics play a growing role in understanding and improving food processing, including the use of heat transfer physics in soup-making and modelling the baking process by making use of the physics of solid foam. He described how the industry could both exploit existing research and explore new areas, such as modelling the flow of complicated liquids in the mouth. While much of processing design was still empirically-driven, it would be much better if we could determine likely outcomes in advance by using physics, he said.

Case studies showing the impact of physics in food manufacture and current scientific challenges were presented by John Bows, technology innovation manager at PepsiCo Europe R&D, Dr Robert Farr, a physicist in the strategic science group at Unilever, and Dr John Melrose, a coffee science expert at Jacobs Douwe Egberts.

Bows said that as a physicist he was keen to encourage more physics graduates into food manufacturing and he hoped that would be one of the outcomes of the summit. He described how physics underpinned crisp manufacture including understanding surface tension of potato slices, imaging the inside of the product and looking at how processing affected its structure. He had worked in microwave packaging and using MRI for remote measurement. Among the challenges he described were using imaging to track microstructure evolution during processing, thermal, electrical and physical measurement in situ and studying the properties of inhomogeneous materials.

Farr said that among the ways in which physics research impacted Unilever’s business was in large-scale numerical modelling of fluid flows, in vivo imaging and theoretical physics. Physics was applied to such problems as demonstrating how tetrahedral tea-bags were an improved design, enhancing the liquid properties of meal replacement drinks and understanding the drying process in foods. Continuing challenges included simulating microstructures under flow, in situ visualisation of microstructures and better understanding of structural dynamics.”

You can find the full article on LinkedIn

Physicists at University of Edinburgh work with food manufacturers too. You can read about the work of Dr Tiffany Wood from the School of Physics and Edinburgh Complex Fluids Partnership.

Featured job – Computational Physicist


Currently advertised on Gradcracker, this role with AWE is to develop, support and improve their in-house nuclear effects codes, maintain AWE’s expert understanding of the physics of nuclear effects, and provide support to customers, collaborators or sponsors involved in nuclear effects.

Find this vacancy and more graduate opportunities for physicists on Gradcracker

Start following organisations on Gradcracker to:

  • find out about their other vacancies
  • show your motivation & interest in them