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My science scholarship gave me a new life in America

Martin Laming

Astrophysicist

Speaking up for science

‘The Lindemann Fellowship changed my life,’ says astrophysicist Dr. Martin Laming. ‘I had been doing experiments in atomic physics for my PHD at Oxford but I wanted a change of direction.’ When he heard about the Lindemann Fellowship – a chance to undertake a year’s postdoctoral research in the US – he jumped at it, and made the move into space science, working at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. ‘I was still doing experiments with the same highly charged ions but now in space, rather than in a laboratory accelerator,’ he says.

Supernova in space to symbolise astrophysicist

Fellows are typically expected to return to the UK within two years but the lure of America proved too strong for Martin. ‘I was offered a job at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC – of which NASA was an outgrowth – and it seemed like too good an opportunity to turn down, so I broke the rules and stayed,’ he laughs. He has been there ever since and now heads the Solar Energetic Particles Section, studying how cosmic rays, which can affect navy satellites, are accelerated at the Sun and elsewhere.

He credits his success to a timely change of research field (thanks to the Lindemann Fellowship) and to learning how  to communicate with different audiences, something he feels was not perhaps emphasised enough during his time at university. ‘In the real world, when you’re responsible for justifying your existence, raising money and making sure people understand what you’re doing, being able to give talks and communicate to a wide variety of audiences becomes very important.’

To have ideas in the first place, you have to be talking to people. Ideas don’t happen in a vacuum. Something has to trigger them, so you have to have interactions with like-minded people or people who will spur the right sorts of thoughts.

After the idea comes the funding proposal. ‘If somebody’s reading about your work for the first time in your proposal, you basically have no chance,’ says Martin. ‘You have to have been out there speaking about your idea at conferences, giving talks and introducing what you’re interested in to other people.’

martin laming, astrophysicist scribbles algebra onto black board
Female scientist uses pipette in a lab

Broadening horizons

Encouraging the exchange of ideas is a key part of our work at the English-Speaking Union and to this end we offer a variety of academic and cultural scholarships and tours enabling students, teachers, librarians, musicians, scientists and others to live and study abroad.

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