By the third year of a four year MSc Physics course I’d come to the realisation that obtaining a meaningful summer placement is by no means a simple task. In many cases applications for the biggest companies close before Christmas, rigorous application forms need to have serious time devoted to and many intern positions are not even advertised. With competition for internships having never been stronger one must utilize all available avenues.
While working at a part time job I got chatting to a colleague who used to teach English to Spanish speakers and was still in contact with a scientific researcher in Chile she’d once taught. After offering to email on my behalf, it turned out her contact was a director at CEFOP (Centre for Optics and Photonics), a research centre specialising in quantum optics, and was fully prepared to take on an English intern. This “networking” activity is evidently more than just a marketing buzzword and really can present great opportunities – who knew?!
With nothing more than a Level 1 Spanish MOMD to my name and a bank balance in the single digits, the thought of an unpaid internship in South America was a little daunting. The director however assured me that a reasonable level of English was spoken in the labs (although some of the emails exchanged with his secretary led me to doubt this assertion somewhat) and the Careers Network provides a large number of bursaries to fund such unpaid internships. Through the process of a written application, a presentation and an interview I was fortunate enough to be awarded a financial bursary to cover flights, accommodation and the cost of living in Chile for two months.
Taking an internship in Chile provided the opportunity to learn more than just the lab and research skills in the day to day working life, but also the culture and language of the region. It took the best part of my first week to realise that when a Chilean says “the day starts at nine”, he means that nine is the absolute earliest one should even consider arriving, and not to expect any company for at least an hour if you do. “Laid back” may have been my first impression, but my early encounters also highlighted how warm and welcoming the Chileans are. I arrived during the World Cup and football fever was running high; by the end of the first week I had been invited to a barbeque to watch the Final, provided times to join in with the department football team and invited out for Friday drinks. Most people in the lab, whether Chilean, Brazilian, Colombian or Argentinian, attempted to speak English with me but I found my Spanish had to improve very quickly to get by.
The lab itself was supplied with as advanced equipment as any other in its field, the value of which necessitated the use of finger print recognition just to gain access, so it was quite a compliment to be given real responsibility to contribute to the experiment. My tasks included work with lasers, daily alignments of the optical setup, data analysis and interpretation and the development of an algorithm by which to operate a pair of segmented deformable mirrors. The two month period included a week’s “winter break”, which afforded me the opportunity to travel even further south to explore the impressive nature which Chile had to offer. Hiking through a snow covered national park in the foothills of the Andes mountain range, picnicking by frozen lakes and souvenir shopping in the shadow of one of the country’s most active volcanoes were just some of the highlights of an exhausting few days.
As much as the lab-work and research experience has benefited me professionally, the personal enjoyment was just as important a part of this trip. The combination of effective networking and a generous Careers Network bursary allowed me to meet some of the most genuine and kind people I’ve ever come across, see some of the most beautiful natural scenery on the planet and learn an awful lot about South American culture (not to mention a newfound taste for Pisco), all whilst working on a publishable research project which will invaluably enhance my employability.
By Pete Connolly