Developing the BURT (Birmingham University Radio Telescope) As A Teaching Facility

By Bethany Baxter, 3rd year Msci Physics & Astrophysics

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Over the summer of 2016, I was lucky enough to work on a project entitled ‘Developing the BURT (Birmingham University Radio Telescope) As A Teaching Facility’ within the Astrophysics and Space Research Group at the University of Birmingham . During this internship, my main goal was to restore to full working order the radio telescope on the roof of the Poynting Physics Building. It had been purchased by the department some years ago to be used as a teaching facility in the undergraduate astrolab, but had fallen into a state of disrepair for unknown reasons. My task was to try to understand why the telescope wasn’t working, and to fix/replace the damaged parts so that eventually the telescope could once again be used by students as a research tool.

During the 2nd year of my degree I worked on the telescope as part of my lab project. As the telescope was still not in full working order at the end of my project and I had not yet secured any work for the summer, I thought it was worth asking my lead demonstrator whether there would be any chance for me to come back and help work on it over the summer – luckily he was as excited about the idea as I was! Due to lack of funding, the only placement he was able to offer me was voluntary but this proved not to be a problem as I applied for (and was awarded) a University of Birmingham Gateway Bursary. This is a scheme run by Careers Network which provides UoB students with enough funding to complete work experience/internships which they would be unable to complete otherwise. I created a budget of all my expenses for the summer (food, toiletries, utility bills, travel etc) and presented this in my bursary interview, after which Careers Network offered me enough funding to support myself through the placement.

Personally I found the most enjoyable part of my internship to be the small victories. For example, spending days receiving an error code and testing all components in the circuit before finally finding that a wire wasn’t making the right connection or a switch had failed to work – when that small issue was corrected it felt like a huge leap forward with the project. This also meant that during my project I could make a ‘user guide’ for the Birmingham University Radio Telescope. The guide explained fully how the telescope worked and how the software should be operated in order to achieve the desired observation results, but it also discussed all the problems that I had experienced during my project and how they were fixed, so that if anything went wrong with the telescope again in future there was a fully documented list of issues and solutions which had been encountered previously.

I expected that the hardest part of my internship would be getting to grips with the computing aspect of it. I was using a Linux system and coding in Java, neither of which I had any experience with in the past. However, I took books out of the library and followed online tutorials to figure out how to use the Linux system and found that the software was written in such a way that I could interpret it using my previous coding experience (in languages such as C++). Therefore I feel that the computing aspect of my internship was not quite so much of a struggle as I expected. I found that I actually really enjoyed applying the coding experience I had gained during my degree to a real-life problem, which made me strongly consider going into a graduate field which would allow me to use these skills in a similar way.

I think that this experience will look particularly impressive on my CV as it was an opportunity which I sourced myself to improve upon the work I did on BURT during my 2nd year lab project. It shows initiative towards seeking new projects and dedication to seeing a piece of work through until it is completed, even if that requires coming back to work on it during my spare time.

After having completed this internship, I am eager to look for penultimate year internships in other businesses in which I can also apply the computing and analysis skills I have gained throughout my degree to real-life problems. While this is not directly linked to the task I was undertaking during the project, I strongly believe that the coding, data analysis and communication skills I have gained and the practical experience of working in a research group will help me greatly in technology-related jobs in the future, and will be an excellent addition to my resume.

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About Bethany Baxter

University of Birmingham Careers Network Student Employability Team Member (Information Team Support Assistant)

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