Rachel Tapping: our prize-winning #UnexpectedScientist

Rachel Tapping

Rachel at work on her dissertation

At UGlosBioscience, our dissertation projects are the capstone of our degrees and the chance to do your own original science project, with support from our academics and technicians. Here, one of our disseration students writes about some fringe benefits of working on her project…!

Doing a microbiology dissertation has required me to spend countless hours in the lab over the last two semesters. Whilst I love microbiology lab work, I can’t deny that it is a nice change to get out of the lab now and then to do something completely different. I had just such an opportunity recently thanks to a competition on Instagram!

Last November Defence Science and Technology Laboratories asked for people to upload scientific selfies captioned ‘#UnexpectedScientist’ to be in with a chance of visiting their explosives facility at Fort Halstead, Kent. Given how much time I spend in the lab, it was all too easy for me to snap a shot of myself working on my dissertation research. Several weeks after posting my #UnexpectedScientist selfie, I was contacted by DSTL with their congratulations on being one of the selected winners of the competition. So, on 11th February I found myself at the Fort Halstead facility with my fellow winners.

We were taken to one of the onsite explosives ranges where we were given a demonstration of various explosions and detonations (which are, I now know, not the same thing!). Then the opportunity arose for one of our number to press the button on the final explosive; it was to be whoever answered the technician’s questions first. Unfortunately my lack of knowledge when it comes to physics meant that I was not the person with their finger on the detonator, though I was still a front row spectator to some truly amazing pyrotechnics!

Next we were given a challenge. We were taken to a room where a dummy ‘bomb’ sat in a box and various planks of wood, lengths of rope and pulleys awaited us. Our task was to create a system that could lift the ‘bomb’ from its box and safely deposit it into another. We could use any of the materials that were set out and the only stipulation was that we must operate our system from the other side of the room. After a couple of failed attempts and copious amounts of duct tape we finally succeeded in moving the ‘bomb’.

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The challenge… to move a dummy ‘bomb’

Our last stop was back outside to see the ‘Wheelbarrow’, a bomb disposal robot capable of being operated remotely or by handheld controls. Though not the most awe inspiring of names, the machinery itself was amazing and we were told all about its use in the field. We were given the chance to operate the Wheelbarrow for ourselves and I will admit that it took me a while to work out the controls, but I soon got the hang of it and the technicians were in some danger of being run over.

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‘The Wheelbarrow’

All too soon my visit had come to an end and it was time to leave the facility. DSTL and the staff I met at Fort Halstead had given me the most fantastic and unique experience that will stay with me for a long time to come. Though, given my ineptitude for ‘bomb’ removal and reckless Wheelbarrow driving, I don’t think I’ll be leaving microbiology for bomb disposal any time soon!

Rachel Tapping, BSc Animal Biology final year student

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