Training programmes that bring together industry and academia are helping to develop a new generation of highly sought-after accelerator engineers and scientists.
Accelerator science is driving innovation across many areas including healthcare therapies, new energy sources, materials science and food preservation – one of its successes has been to improve proton therapy for treatment of cancer.
It clearly has a very important role to play and Europe is investing heavily in the necessary research facilities, with particle accelerators being found at locations including the X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) in Hamburg and the European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden.
However, the same level of investment hasn’t taken place in training people, and with demand outstripping supply, a shortage in skilled accelerator scientists and engineers now exists.
In an attempt to change things for the better, the Cockcroft Institute developed training programmes that have produced research fellows from across the world. Led by Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, Head of the Liverpool Accelerator Physics Group at the institute, the mission is to train experts in a field where he says nobody currently provides training.
Filling a skills hole
“If you look across Europe there’s basically no undergraduates physics programmes in accelerator science for engineering,” he notes. “There are PhD projects, but mostly individual projects that are hosted in university groups that have their main focus elsewhere. This is basically why the institute started,” he explains.
Creating programmes that see academia and industry working together, the institute applied for grants to gain funding to train accelerator experts across Europe. The first programmes started back in 2008, and since then the institute has supported researchers in areas including beam diagnostics, laser-based applications, beam behaviour and accelerator optimisation.
A multidisciplinary skill set
The field is considered multidisciplinary, and the scientists and engineers that take part in the programmes cover many different disciplines as part of their training. This means that after their three years on the programme they have a broad range of skills and are employable across a large number of different areas.
The latest programmes, oPAC, which aims to promote the optimisation of accelerators, and the LA3NET, which focuses on the development of a complete spectrum of laser-based applications, come to an end this September. They are designed with the input of partners from research institutes and industry and during the programmes the researchers split their time between the two depending on the project’s needs.
“Accelerator science requires a high degree of engineering skills and it is extremely difficult to recruit people with the right skills. The mutual stimulation of research and industry…is the best basis for innovation,” says Erich Griesmayer, CEO of CIVIDEC.
“The benefits of such a programme to my organisation are huge; we have trained a young fellow through oPAC who will get a permanent staff position in our company. He has been taught experimental physics and scientific computing and has become an expert in the field of particle detectors and their applications to charged particles, photons and neutrons. In my experience, this combination of width and depth is exceptional for a fellow of his young age.”
The programmes have also been developed so that the fellows have the right skills and knowledge to move into either industry or academia after the completion of their project.
“Those that aren’t employed by industry when they join the programme spend at least two weeks, but up to three months, with an industry partner, so that they can experience how research is carried out in industry,” Carsten says. “So when it comes to the next step in their career they’ve experienced both and can decide which they’d prefer. They get first hand experience of the differences and challenges facing researchers in both academia and industry.”
Furthermore, where possible, the institute organises placements across Europe, sometimes in areas away from their PhD project in order to give them a chance to experience a different area and help them better judge where they want to go in the future.
The first cohort of Cockcroft Institute fellows all found employment straight away, and many of the programme’s current researchers have already secured their next role. In addition, many of the fellows have had their research picked up by prestigious journals.
The current researchers’ work will be showcased at a conference entitled Accelerators and lasers for science and society, which takes place at the Liverpool Convention Centre on 26 June. For those unable to attend there will be a webinar that people can join, and it also provides a great chance for students and young engineers to find out more about career opportunities within this sector, with the first session of the day dedicated to this topic.
In addition, the symposium is also a chance for Carsten to put a spotlight on the success the institute has had in creating a community of skilled accelerator scientists and engineers. In turn he hopes this will help raise funding for future courses.
“It is brilliant to see the level of expertise our fellows have now reached and their excellent research results,” Carsten says. “This symposium will provide an insight into the economic, scientific and societal benefits of this work.
“Our academic and industry partners say that this training has been unparalleled. I hope that we will be able to give similar opportunities to future generations of researchers. Otherwise advances such as those in cancer proton therapy cannot be sustained,” he warns.