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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Career Path: Do you want to build a snowflake?

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    24 Sep

    4A Angela Symington When you see a snowflake, do you think it’s pretty or ask how it was made? It still amazes me that there are only 3 variables in making something so intricate as a snowflake but around 100 different identified features and 10158 (that's a 1 followed by 158 zeros) unique snowflakes. That's twice as many potential snowflake designs as there are atoms in the universe [1]. If you can tune temperature, relative humidity and how these change over time you can create the your perfect snowflake.4A Angela Symington snowflake I learnt a lot about snow and ice and more generally how to design and unpick the underlying chemistry and physics of complex environmental systems during my PhD with Dr. Tony Cox. We looked at how processes taking place on ice surfaces affect climate change and how fast pollution is cleaned up in the atmosphere.

    Our focus was 8-10 km up so outside the ideal range of satellites and too high for most aircraft. There was very limited data and acquiring more was really expensive so the community had to work together to understand the key processes in the system and prioritize what was measured to verify that understanding. We learnt to be brutal with data and kind to people.

    Learning to unpick the chemistry and physics of systems isn’t a normal route into oil and gas but it has been the biggest enabler in my current job and will be even more valuable as it gets tougher to extract hydrocarbons. We’re going to need more oil and gas alongside renewable energy as we move towards a lower-carbon world. However, many oil and gas reservoirs are in really inaccessible locations (under kilometers of rock) and once you get there the oil/gas is in the gaps between rock grains. Then the oil itself is made up of thousands of different types of molecules. My job is to assess whether any molecules/ions in the oil/water/gas will deposit as we move from the reservoir conditions (typically over a hundred times atmospheric pressure and up to 200°C) to ambient temperature and just above atmospheric pressure and to put in place solutions that will prevent it happening. This is important commercially as deposits restrict the amount of oil/gas produced and therefore the amount of value for the business. I have learnt to understand how oil field chemistry works in projects and operations as I have met real challenges. In that environment you need to turn understanding into solutions on a timescale of weeks to months – much faster than a PhD or postdoc. I didn’t set out to follow this path, at school I didn’t know what scientists did and thought all the interesting stuff had already been discovered. But I still find new challenges to solve every week so if you are enthusiastic, hard working and can think like a physicist there will be plenty for you to discover!

    Angela Symington