Margaret O'Hara

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Margaret O'Hara (1990 Applied Physics) - currently in here third year of a PhD at the University of Birmingham.

This all began because I was fortunate enough to have a great physics teacher who took us to open days at Universities - I remember being really impressed when visiting Strathclyde. Three things attracted me to the Applied physics course: the industrial project between 3rd and 4th year (I went to Eindhoven Technical University), the environmental physics course with its field trip and the option to do subsidiary subject (I did Psychology in my 1st year, Russian in my 2nd and 3rd year and German in my 4th year). I was in various minds whether to do maths, physics or languages at university but I chose physics because there was enough maths to satisfy the mathematician in me while the option of subsidiary subjects let me study languages too, which was very important to me. The social life at Strathclyde was fantastic- I was heavily involved in the student theatre group, which brought me into contact with people from other faculties.

After Strathclyde, I did a PGCE at St. Andrews College in Bearsden in secondary teaching of physics and maths. I then taught physics for two years at Abronhill High School in Cumbernauld (my claim to fame being that it’s the school where they filmed Gregory's Girl).

Feeling a wanderlust, I applied for a job teaching in Botswana. Originally, it was a two-year contract, but I stayed for just over six years, working in state schools and then in independent schools. I taught mainly physics, but spent one year setting up a science department in a new secondary school and one year being deputy head in a new independent school. One of the best things I did while in Botswana was taking kids on a bush camp for a week, sleeping out in the bush on the banks of the Limpopo river and being woken up by a hippo taking too much of an interest in our camp fire! I also ended up running a marimba band and teaching a bit of music. I learned saxophone from a South African jazz player and played regularly in the local jazz scene, as well as playing in a weddings/parties-type band.

At this stage, I felt like I should come back to the UK but didn't particularly relish the idea of teaching back here. I’d been spoilt by teaching nice kids with no government interference in what you do in the classroom. Also, I was watching my A level kids going on to do interesting courses all over the world and I felt like I wanted to do some more physics myself. I didn't really realise how much I actually liked physics until I'd taught it for a few years and it also made me realise how much I'd forgotten from my degree. I suppose I wanted a refresher in university level physics as much as anything else.

I enrolled on an MSc course in medical and radiation physics at Birmingham University, funding it with the money I'd made from my end-of-contract gratuity. (expats in Botswana are usually on contracts with an end-of-contract gratuity amounting to 6 months salary). I also did some supply teaching in Birmingham to supplement my earnings.

After the MSc I did Grade A training in medical physics for two years - this is the first stage of the career progression to become a medical physicist in the NHS. This was at University Hospital Birmingham.

At this stage, a good PhD opportunity came up in the school of physics at the university and I am now in my third year of study. The project is using proton transfer reaction mass spectrometry to analyse trace gases on the breath. The broad aims are to develop a greater understanding of lung physiology and to look for markers of disease. We will be doing clinical trials on patients as well as ourselves. Learning a subject in depth and doing work which adds meaningfully to the body of knowledge in my field is immensely satisfying. Another thing I love is that in research you get to meet really, really interesting people from all over the world. I've also been to Australia, Sweden, Austria and the Czech Republic and Japan for conferences.

Physics is my career. I do physics on a daily basis and even though I'm in a multi disciplinary field which is quite medical, being trained as physicist enables me to think in a way about the data that biologists, quite frankly, just can't do. I plan to stay in my research field for the foreseeable future. In the long term who knows, but I am secure in the knowledge that, as a physics teacher, I'll never be without a job. It also gives me the financial security to be able to 'choose' my research job, rather than taking the first thing that comes along because I'm desperate to earn a living.

Playing music is my main hobby and I have started another band in Birmingham. I'm still learning languages, currently doing Russian evening classes. I do a lot of travelling and socialising with friends. Because my partner and myself are both involved in research, we get to meet and work with people from different countries and we often have parties where there are 10 different nationalities. I love this aspect of my life, not just for the offers of places to stay all over the world, but also for the widening of the mind and horizons.