Hi, my name is Helen Smith and I work in the Plasma Theory and Simulation Group at the University of California at Berkeley. My reasearch area is computational plasma physics. For those of you who aren't familiar with plasmas, they are hot, glowing gases, sometime described as the "4th state of matter". And if you're still confused, plasmas aren't as unfamiliar as you might think. Some everyday examples are:
I make computer models of special types of plasmas, which are used by industry to modify surface-layers of materials. These plasmas are used in the manufacture of all sorts of things, including
- the sun/stars
- aurora (northern and southern lights). See a photo of an aurora (600 k).
- fluorescent lights
- arc welders
You might be interested in how I became a physicist. Well I followed a fairly traditional path. I did a 3 year undergraduate degree in Science at Monash University, in Melbourne. Then I did an Honours (or 4th) Year, also at Monash, where I undertook a small research project in Physics. This is sort of like an apprenticeship, to see if you enjoy/are any good at scientific research. At the end of my Honours I decided I wanted to go on and do a PhD and I applied for scholarships. I was offered places at several universities and I chose to go to the Australian National University, since I had done vacation work there and knew that the Plasma Research Lab would be a good place to work. My PhD took about 4 1/2 years to complete, although the final year I went to work at Sydney University (since my scholarship had finished and I still needed to eat!). I went back to Canberra in 1995 to work on large-scale computer programs running on a supercomputer. Although the initial contract which employed me was only for 6 months I ended up working at ANU on a variety of contracts for another 4 years. In January 1999 I moved to the US to start a post-doctoral position at U C Berkeley. This position will involve computer simulation of plasmas, primarily low temperature low pressure plasmas. But as I'm still finding my feet here, that's all I can say for the moment!
- anti-reflective coatings on sunglasses, tv screens, windows etc
- making very durable surfaces on materials used in surgery (eg hip-replacement joints) and steel tools
- silicon chips used in computers
- optical waveguides, used for optical fibre communications
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