If you are curious about sub-atomic particles, nuclear weapons and science fiction movies like Star Trek, a career in nuclear physics may just be the thing for you.
This is what motivated BSc alumnus Milton van Rooy to study experimental nuclear physics at Stellenbosch University. Today he is a radioactivity scientist at the National Metrology Institute of South Africa.
Why did you choose this career?
I became interested in nuclear physics during high school after finding out about sub-atomic particles and nuclear weapons. Science fiction movies like Star Trek also got me curious. Working with radioactive material is exciting to me, it's like living in a science fiction movie.
What training did you undergo?
I started and completed my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in nuclear physics at Stellenbosch University. While completing my PhD in experimental nuclear physics, I was employed by the National Metrology Institute of South Africa where I received specialized training related to my career.
What does your job entail?
Metrology is the science of measurement, where we strive to perform very accurate, high precision measurements with small uncertainties. In my case, I use various particle detectors and electronics, accompanied by data analysis, to determine radioactivity levels in things like environmental samples, consumer products and nuclear medicine. The job has many responsibilities, but my primary focus is research in measurement techniques, and developing and maintaining standards of radioactivity. I also have the opportunity for other projects. We are trying to test the effect of antineutrinos, emitted by the Koeberg nuclear reactors, on the decay rates of radionuclides.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
The best thing is that you never stop learning. Every day brings a new challenge. We demonstrate our measurement capabilities by participating in international comparisons of radioactivity measurements with other metrology institutes. This can be regarded as a type of examination. Therefore, making a very accurate measurement with a small uncertainty, which compares well with the international community, is very satisfying. I also enjoy travelling abroad to present our work and research, and attend meetings.
Describe an average day?
An average day can consist of a combination of laboratory work (i.e. measuring radioactivity levels or making radioactive sources), data analysis, administrative duties, writing scientific papers, preparing a conference presentation, developing or improving measurement techniques and electronics.
Type of personality that would enjoy this kind of career?
You need a certain level of experience with detectors, electronics and data analysis when starting in this field, which you can get from training at university. My training is never finished. By attending various conferences and training courses you develop skills and learn about new electronics and techniques which you can try out in the laboratory, thereby gaining experience. There are still many things I do not know, which I have to research and try out for myself, also through this process I train myself and build up experience.
I would say the ability to perform under pressure; a positive and constructive attitude, passion and common sense, are also very important.
What challenges have you had to overcome?
There are hundreds of radionuclides each of which provide unique challenges during measurements of radioactivity, but my greatest challenge was completing and defending my PhD work.
Advice for grade 11 and 12 learners considering this career?
If you enjoy challenges, problem-solving and science – even if you're not particularly good at it right now – if it fascinates you, stick with it. Your mind will develop more at university as you start to see how things fit together and make sense. Just work hard and think logically. You don't have to be a genius. Surround yourself with positive people. You have to continuously educate yourself by attending conferences, training courses, reading scientific papers and trying out new things. A PhD is important in moving up the career ladder, but an MSc in experimental nuclear physics with all the corresponding disciplines involved, i.e. maths, chemistry, statistics and programming, are needed to succeed in this career.