About the Case Study
Performing a science experiment in Westminster Abbey and meeting the Queen sounds like something from a particularly surreal dream, but it’s just one opportunity that the title Young Scientist of the Year 2009 gave to Peter Hatfield.
“My time at the Big Bang Fair for the Competition was an absolute whirlwind. I met many science celebrities, made lots of friends and even got to go to Number 10 Downing Street.”
At a deeper level, it had a big impact on his career path from the start. Though he thinks it’s likely he would have studied a STEM subject at university, Peter wasn't set on a career in that field.
“I could easily have ended up in other areas. After the Competition I was dead set on a career in the sciences… it showed me that the projects I had enjoyed so much in school could lead to a career where I could keep on being involved in the marvellous world of science.”
His winning project was a method developed to determine the geometry of plasma flares on distant stars, and he contributed towards the design of a cosmic ray detector eventually launched into space.
The following years saw Peter completing undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Cambridge, and he will soon be finishing a PhD at the University of Oxford.
This has taken him around the world to see first-hand where some of the latest developments are happening, exploring the formation and evolution of galaxies using telescopes in Hawaii, Chile and South Africa, where he spent six months as part of his thesis. “By looking far away we can look billions of years into the past and see how galaxies and the Universe as a whole changes over time.”
“I was studying at the University of Western Cape which was a great experience, as it will be the home of the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope that is being built in the Karoo Desert nearby. I’ll be submitting my thesis in the coming year, and have plans to keep working in astronomy as a postdoctoral researcher afterwards.”
Peter was only 17 at the time but the Competition made a lasting impact. “I found it an absolutely exhilarating experience, met loads of like-minded other students and lots of inspiring scientists a bit further along in their careers.”
By chance he also got to meet a science hero from his childhood. Interviewed on the radio after winning, Peter mentioned that Kevin Warwick’s Royal Institution Lectures ‘The Rise of the Robots’ had inspired him as a child. “His people then got in touch with me and I went to visit him at Reading University.”
Now an Honorary Fellow of the British Science Association, Peter values the opportunities the Competition gave him to share and explain his research with others, and to get some media training. “It’s an important experience in public outreach and how to share your ideas with others, which has led to many important contacts.”