Physics alumna Marie Claire McKee (2001)
Marie Claire is currently Azure Production Team Leader with Coherent Scotland Ltd, which is located on the Todd Campus, West of Scotland Science Park on Maryhill Road in Glasgow. She graduated in 2001 with a BSc degree in Laser Physics and Optoelectronics from Strathclyde.
I studied Laser Physics and Optics (LPO) at Strathclyde from 1997 to 2001. Like every student, I think I found it difficult to juggle so many different subjects at once and still find time for practical work such as the final year project. However, most lecturers were more than happy to spend time outside of lectures and in tutorials going through past exam paper questions with you. Also the choice of courses was wide and varied so that you weren’t restricted to mainstream physics.
The highlight for me was the lab in third year. I much preferred these labs as the experiments were entirely laser/optics based and this interested me most. It was also great to finally see all the theory that had been covered in the course lectures put in to practice.
"The summer placement […] gave me a very useful insight into the world of manufacturing and the business side of things"
The summer placement at the end of third year was also very beneficial. I spent three months working for Agilent Technologies in Ipswich on Submarine Pump Lasers. Although this wasn’t a “hands on” job, I feel it gave me a very useful insight into the world of manufacturing and the business side of things.
Looking back, the only gap I can really see in the course is in the preparation for working life. The impression I got from some sources at university was that the only rewarding future lay in further studies and this clearly isn’t true. I think an external career advisor would benefit the department greatly. In regards to hands-on experience, perhaps more experience of actually assembling and aligning lasers would be useful, although I don’t think this was true of all projects available. [KW: The department now has a careers-mentoring service for advising undergraduates and postgraduates.]
My first job was my current job: I am a Laser Systems Engineer for Coherent Scotland in the West of Scotland Science Park. This is a mixture of hands on production and contributing to the development of lasers. A year or two after I joined, I became the production team leader for the Azure product. This is a 266-nm doubling laser system used in semi-conductor inspection applications and in the disc mastering market.
My technical knowledge is ever growing. The company has a rotation scheme for graduates so that they spend a period of time working on each product before finally settling down at one. I have been here for four years now and spent periods with two out of three main products.
More recently in the role of Team Leader, I have developed my management and resource planning skills, backed up with external training. Being involved in driving a production team and meeting sales targets is that part I really enjoy. Also watching products make the transition from early prototypes through to an easy to manufacture repeatable and stable product.
The degree gave me a sound knowledge of the basic principles of lasers and a good understanding of optics. Although this is vital in my job, no textbooks can prepare you completely for working with cutting edge technology as it hasn’t been written yet!
Also apart from the obvious technical knowledge, the individuality of the final year project prepared me for several aspects of the job such as decision making, planning experiments, collecting and analysing results, etc.
Would you choose to do physics again?
Definitely! Physics is important for my job about 95% of the time! In fact, in hindsight, I know now which classes and which lab experiments would be the most useful to me in my career so I might have focused more on them.
Would you advise others to do physics?
It’s a personal choice but if someone enjoys physics and can handle a fair bit of maths then yes. I think it’s also vital to highlight to prospective physics students the wide variety of jobs available with such a qualification. The only real downside is that job availability tends to be limited in Scotland so you should be open to the possibility of having to go to England or further to find work before you enrol for the course.
Coherent Scotland is an expanding company and is regularly looking for new graduates to join the team. As well as the opportunity to work with cutting edge products, we are part of a much bigger American group (see http://www.cohr.com/) so there is always the option of internal placements at other sites. Even for someone who ultimately sees them self in an R&D role, I can definitely preach the benefits of experiencing a production role first in an established product. The knowledge gained here can prove invaluable when you are at the other end of a product’s life cycle, when you are trying to develop it into something that can be produced and tested on a larger scale by simply following a proven successful procedure.