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Research environment

The School of Physical Sciences (SPS) has about 140 members including 40 academic staff, around 30 postdoctoral researchers and 60 full-time research students. It is based in the Robert Hooke Building on the Walton Hall campus, with additional officesin the Venables Building and K-Block, and laboratory space in the Perry Block.


The Robert Hooke Building and nearby Perry Block house purpose built experimental laboratories, sample analysis laboratories, mechanical and electronic space-experiment workshops and clean rooms. Our world-class analytical facilities include a range of state-of-the-art stable isotope mass spectrometers, a NanoSIMS ion microprobe, an analytical SEM with integrated Focused Ion Beam milling, gas chromatography-MS and -TOFMS, an XPS system , a range of optical microscope systems including laser Raman microprobe and UV-Vis Microphotospectrometer, and a microbiology lab. Space environment chambers are used to simulate planetary surface conditions and test and calibrate space instruments. SPS maintains a large meteorite collection which provides extraterrestrial samples for the range of micro-analytical facilities. UHV-surface science techniques are used to study gases and ices under interstellar conditions, in our extensive Astrochemistry Laboratory. The Perry Buildings houses extensive experimental facilities for atomic, molecular and plasma physics research, including dedicated laser laboratories, mass spectrometers, surface analysis instruments, and industrially relevant plasma etching equipment.

The School has access to the University’s high performance computing cluster, which is used to carry out simulations and calculations relating to cold atoms, molecular collisions, biophysics, materials, astrophysics and planetary atmospheres.

SPS hosts the Centre for Electronic Imaging, a sponsored research centre for development of detector technologies in collaboration with Teledyne e2v which is one of the world's leading suppliers of imaging sensors for space applications (e.g. WFC3 on Hubble Space telescope, HiRise on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MERIS on Envisat).

School members are extensive users of many national and international facilities: HECToR, Diamond Light Source, European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, Institut Laue-Langevin neutron facility, etc.. Astronomical facilities include ground-based optical/IR observatories (e.g. ESO VLT, ING, AAT, UKIRT), mm/radio observatories (e,g, JCMT, SMA, ALMA, VLA) and space telescopes (e.g. HST, AKARI, Spitzer, Herschel, XMM-Newton). The school is a member of the UK SALT Consortium, which owns a 5% share in the 10m Southern African Large Telescope, partners in the SuperWASP consortium that operates two robotic sky-patrol camera systems (one in La Palma, one at Sutherland Observatory). SPS is also a member of the UK LOFAR Consortium and contributes to many planned future international ground-based and space-based observatories (e.g. LSST, Euclid, PLATO, SPICA, JWST, FIRI, E-ELT). Most recently, as the UK joined ESA’s ELIPS programme we have gained direct access to microgravity facilities, including parabolic flights.

The development of instrumentation and exploitation of results from space missions underpins many projects in the school, which has provided instruments for Cassini Huygens probe landing on Titan, collection of solar wind particles by Genesis, the Beagle 2 Mars lander and isotopic composition measurements of cometary ices on Rosetta. Research students play an important role in all phases of such missions from feasibility studies, instrument development, operations and data analysis. Other missions or proposals with school involvement include Gaia (astrometry), Trace Gas Orbiter (Mars spectroscopy), MarcoPolo-R (Near-Earth asteroid sample return), Juice (Jupiter system), Ariel (exoplanet observatory).

Most laboratory facilities are available for PhD student use, as is the high performance computing cluster. Many PhD projects are intimately linked to analysis programmes and current and future space missions.

Supervisory practice

SPS and the OU have extensive infrastructure for the support and training of research students, under the overall umbrella of the OU Research School. With involvement in international research programmes, and housing extensive research equipment and facilities, the working environment is ideal for a student to maintain a high level of motivation. SPS staff work on site, with supervisors operating an 'open-door' policy for their research students. Thus the supervision allows frequent contact between supervisor and student. Meetings of discipline and research group members are held to discuss matters of general interest with more specialised, project-specific, meetings held on a regular basis. International collaborations ensure many visitors who interact directly with the students who are intimately involved with those particular projects. Students are encouraged to attend seminars run by SPS and research groups.

Students are assigned a third party mentor, not associated with their research field, with whom they can discuss in confidence any matters that may affect their studies.

Students are also supported by a team of three dedicated Postgraduate Tutors within SPS, who look after areas including recruitment, training and student support.

The Research School maintains a Code of Practice for Supervisors and Research Students. These two documents form part of a more extensive work -- the Research Degree Student Handbook File -- which is given to all postgraduate students on their registration and to all supervisors on their first appointment. The contents of the File are updated regularly to reflect changing University policy and practice.

The University has a formal reporting procedure, requiring the production of six monthly reports for each research student to a specified timetable. The reports both encourage and recognize in a formal way the good work of the student and can be used to identify and propose remedial action for any issues that may arise with progress. For full-time students at the end of their first year (the end of the second year for part-time students) there is also a Probation Report which requires production of a written report, summarising the year's work and future plans, a short oral presentation and a 'First Year Viva' conducted by two academics who are expert in a related research area.