Fiona Harden

PhD Physics, 2014
From Aberdeen to CERN

Fiona Harden currently works at CERN, the European research organisation that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. Here she tells us all about her experience at university and how it led her From Aberdeen to CERN.


I always knew that I wanted a career in the sciences but never really had a clear career path in my mind. I enrolled at The University of Aberdeen in 2006 to study Mathematics due to the reputable degree offered. However, at my supervisor meeting during Freshers week I was advised to take some physics courses to compliment the necessary maths courses for my chosen degree. It was the best decision ever.

The University of Aberdeen had a fantastic programme combining the best of maths and the best of physics in one degree providing a breadth of courses detailing many theoretical concepts and experimental techniques. I gained my BSc (Hons) in Mathematics-Physics in 2010 and have never looked back.

During my time at Aberdeen I loved the true campus feeling whilst walking to early morning lectures; being surrounded by historic buildings, cobbled streets, and the pancake shop just up the road (which became the Friday lunch time necessity). The people I met there became life-long friends and it remains a privilege to have met so many amazing people (students, postdocs, professors) from different nationalities and backgrounds, and having many philosophical discussions in the hub, in the common rooms (or on the lawn of King’s College on those rare sunny days in the north-east).

After graduating I had a chat with my soon to be PhD supervisor where we discussed a research project about investigating bone replacement materials and bone degenerative diseases. I jumped at the chance to continue my academic career; it combined experimental physics, lab work, analytical techniques and had an industrial link, it ticked all my areas of interest. This project really cemented my passion for scientific investigation and for experimental physics, always feeling at home in the lab.

Throughout my PhD I was also given the opportunity to travel the world for conferences and for experimental research at different user facilities. Being involved in research isn’t just about sitting behind a desk reading papers, it is a fantastic world of collaboration, discussion and new ideas. One particular highlight for me was having the chance to see Professor Peter Higgs give a lecture (before his Nobel Prize), at an event at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. This was a truly inspirational moment for me, and I luckily got the chance to speak with him (and grab a quick photo) at the end.

After my time at Aberdeen I moved into the industrial sector working for the UKs largest defence company, BAE Systems. After progressing to technical lead and completing a couple of years in the sector I was ready for a new challenge, took a chance and applied for a CERN fellowship. This is where my greatest adventure began. I was offered a post and moved to Geneva. I became part of the engineering department and soon became the facility co-ordinator of one of CERNs user facilities (HiRadMat). Here, we provide our services to a wide array of users with experiments ranging from collimator, targets and novel materials; investigating thermal shock responses and damage limitations due to high power, high intensity LHC-type beams. CERN is a world-renowned institute where you get to collaborate with people from all over the world and participate in some amazing physics and scientific projects. It is definitely the place to be for a physicist.

Reflecting on my academic career so far, I owe a great deal to The University of Aberdeen, which will always hold a special place in my heart. The professors, the lectures, the people, the environment, the excellent scientific degree programme; all of which provided me with the academic discipline, knowledge and confidence to progress in such a varied scientific research career path.