Oops! Failure to launch
‘I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree and had to choose what subject to do my master’s thesis on. I was at Newcastle University and there was a really cool Californian professor who studied cosmology, and I knew that I was going to be a cosmologist. No question about it, it was sexy science with the most exciting researcher in the physics department and I was going to do his project.
The way that selection for master’s theses went was that one Monday in the first term, everyone could have meetings with all the potential project supervisors and discuss the projects they wanted to do. I had already planned a long weekend visiting friends in a different city, but since I knew that it was obviously my destiny to become a world-famous cosmologist, it wouldn’t matter that I would be showing up late on the Monday. I would arrive in the afternoon to chat with the popular professor to discuss the project I was going to be doing for my master’s thesis, and that would be that.
I was therefore shocked when I turned up late on the Monday to find out that the Californian professor had already agreed to take on a different student to do the project. I almost felt betrayed. In my head, it was supposed to be my project! I was left, late in the day, without any project, desperately rushing around all the other supervisors trying to find someone to take me on.
I don’t want to make it seem like my supervisor was the last person left and it was a project I had no interest in – but it was computational physics with a lot of coding and about as unsexy as a project could’ve been to me at that time. This, of course, has become the research field that I now spend my whole life thinking about.
Soon after starting my project I started to enjoy it, realised I found it interesting, and started to get good at it. After finishing up my master’s, I decided to move to London to do a PhD. It wasn’t a particularly well thought-out plan, but again, once I got to University College London, I found the work enjoyable and was able to turn it into my career.
I think my learning from these experiences points to being flexible and adaptable as a key to success, as it can be hard to predict how things are going to go in advance, and sometimes great opportunities arise along the way.’
This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 27, October 2020.
The Oops! column recounts an event that didn't go according to plan.