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Once a physicist: Julie Bellingham

26 Feb 2020 Tushna Commissariat
Taken from the February 2020 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.
Julie Bellingham

What sparked your initial interest in physics?

I’d always been interested in physics and how the world worked, and this was encouraged by my parents and some good teachers at school. My dad was always keen on space and astronomy and on one memorable holiday, we visited Kennedy Space Center and saw a shuttle launch, which was amazing. This strengthened a lifelong fascination with astronomy. I’d also always loved art and design too, but while choosing my A-levels I felt like I had two possible life paths: whether to pursue design-led subjects like architecture, or physics. I chose the latter.

You studied at the University of Warwick – what did your MPhys and PhD focus on?

Initially I focused on astronomy, but broadened in my undergraduate degree as I got interested in other areas of physics. By the time I chose my PhD, I was more interested in practical applications, and also thinking of future job options, so I studied surface science, using analytical techniques to study semiconductors.

What made you leave academia, especially after eight years at the STFC?

After my PhD, I decided that pure research wasn’t for me. I had found doing my own research a little isolating as I was often checking on experiments at antisocial hours and working alone. I had spent a lot of time looking at ways to make the PhD students in the department interact more, and learn about each other’s work, so I was looking for ways to bring people together with science, and I found that at the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

My first role there was managing EU projects, working with people across Europe who were developing new technologies for particle accelerators. Later I became the industry liaison for CERN and other European facilities.

How did you get interested in art, design and gardening?

I really enjoyed working at the STFC, but I always felt that there was a deep interest in design which I hadn’t fully explored. Making the change happened quite suddenly. One night I woke up at about 2 a.m., turned to my husband and said I wanted to retrain as a garden designer. A year before this, he had swapped from physics to making films, so he was an enthusiastic supporter of my new direction.

I spend a lot of time sketching, making things and exploring art museums. Garden design is a great way to bring these three things together, but at school I even didn’t know that it was a career option. I use specific artists as inspiration for designs – I love the work of Sol LeWitt, Olafur Eliasson and Dan Flavin to name a few.

What were some of the challenges in setting up your own business?

Getting to grips with being self-employed and the time it takes to retrain was the first challenge. I graduated from the Cotswold Gardening School with a distinction and a prize for being the top student of the year. But a big problem with something like garden design when you start out is the lack of a portfolio. It can take a year to redevelop a garden, and longer still for the plants to reach their full potential. I decided a way around this was to design and build a show garden, so I applied to the Royal Horticultural Society Malvern Spring Show. I felt like the design was a merging of my old career and new career, as the garden showcased astronomical redshift and the role of telescopes in our understanding of the universe. It featured sculptures representing telescopes, and I used swathes of colour to represent the redshift as the flower colours merged from yellows, through orange, to reds. The garden was part-funded by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society, and had a huge reach. I won a silver medal for the garden and was able to use that experience to attract new clients.

How has your physics background been helpful in your current work, if at all?

With garden design, some people think I’m a gardener, but actually most of my time is spent at a drawing board and it can be quite technical. For example, working out how to manage gradient changes while keeping the design intact and working precisely to scale in a technical way is definitely easier thanks to my physics training. Though I’ve been inspired by art, I’m also inspired by science in my designs. My own garden design layout is based on CERN data, and another project was inspired by constellation patterns. I definitely have a different perspective thanks to my background.

Any advice for today’s students?

Physics provides a great grounding and is such an interesting subject. Despite my dramatic career change, I’m pleased I studied physics. Don’t worry if you’ve not decided on a future career path, as there are many options open to you. Keep your eyes open for opportunities. When thinking about your career, don’t just think about the type of work you like, but also what lifestyle you’d like and where you might like to live. Certain careers can open (or close) doors to lifestyle options, so I would recommend considering everything as a whole when looking for work.

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