Green Jobs For Physics Majors
With their mix of technical knowledge and problem-solving skills, physics majors are ideally placed to tackle the world’s environmental challenges. Laura Hiscott speaks to a range of physicists who are playing their part in building a greener, more sustainable future
Focus on solutions There are lots of approaches to tackling climate change. From left: Eunice Lo is a climate researcher; Mark Crouch is in consultancy; Ann Davies is in solar energy; Hari Chohan works on fusion. (Courtesy: David Pratt; Mark Crouch; Lightsource BP; UKAEA)
If the last few years of environmental coverage has taught us anything, it is that the climate crisis is a complex problem with no silver bullet. Effectively mitigating it will require a multifaceted approach that incorporates technological solutions as well as behavior change at governmental, corporate and individual levels. For physicists, the challenges of meeting our needs sustainably are already opening up lots of interesting and creative job opportunities.
In many of these roles, the skills and knowledge you gain from a physics degree are invaluable. As well as being numerate and having technical knowledge, you’ll have computer programming skills and practice of applying physical principles to solve real-world problems. To guide you through the myriad options, in October 2021, I spoke to nine physicists whose work relates to three main aspects of sustainability: policy and behavior change; decarbonizing energy sources; and finance and economics.
POLICY AND BEHAVIOR CHANGE
Eunice Lo, researcher, University of Bristol, UK
In order to respond effectively to climate change, it’s important to understand its fundamental causes and effects. Eunice Lo is particularly interested in how climate change will affect extreme weather events, with a focus on heatwaves and their impact on human health.
Lo first became interested in this area while studying physics and astronomy at Durham University, UK, where her senior-year project looked at how to calibrate telescopes to correct for atmospheric effects on the radiation they detect. “Climate change is also about radiation transfer through components of the atmosphere,” she explains, “with outgoing longwave radiation being trapped by greenhouse gases.”
To pursue this further, Lo did a Ph.D. in atmosphere, oceans and climate at the University of Reading, UK. She found that her physics background helped her to hit the ground running, as she already had some understanding of atmospheric physics and had honed her computer programming skills during her undergraduate degree. Lo also did some master’s courses in meteorology alongside the first year of her Ph.D. “That helped me transition from a pure physics background to applying my theoretical knowledge to the environment,” she recalls.
Lo now uses the programming languages Python and R to create climate models and study how global warming will affect the frequency and intensity of heatwaves. Since heatwaves can cause illnesses and even deaths, she then translates those possible future scenarios into projections of human health outcomes.
Crucially, Lo’s research is often included in reports such as the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Report, which is published every five years, and which government officials use to make decisions about national mitigation and adaptation. She is also a contributing author to one chapter of the 2021 report published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and hopes this will prompt new policies on reducing emissions.
Mark Crouch, carbon management team lead, Mott MacDonald
Building a sustainable future is not just about action at a government level—businesses also need to make changes. Mark Crouch, who works at Mott MacDonald, an international engineering consultancy headquartered in the UK, is optimistic that companies are waking up to their responsibilities.
“The conversations with clients have become a lot more mature than they were when I first started in this field around 2010,” says Crouch. “Businesses no longer see sustainability as something they just have to consider to make themselves look good. They understand climate change as a real business risk.”
Crouch went into environmental engineering after studying physics with astrophysics at the University of Leeds, UK. While working on flood modeling and designing flood alleviation schemes, it struck home that global warming was having major impacts. “With something like flood risk, you can’t just keep building bigger dams,” he explains. “That’s what motivated me to get into mitigation and addressing the root causes.”
Crouch did a master’s in sustainable energy at Imperial College London, which he found prepared him well for consultancy, and he now heads up the 100-strong and growing global carbon management practice at Mott MacDonald. His team in the UK works closely with bodies such as the Environment Agency and National Grid to understand the carbon impacts of major infrastructure projects on a full-life-cycle basis, and advises clients on how to reduce them. They also look at how emerging technologies fit in.
The full-life-cycle analysis is important because infrastructure often has a big carbon footprint not just when it is up and running but also when it is being built. Crouch notes that if cement manufacturing were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the US and China. “There’s a huge need for
people to tackle that through developing new materials and approaches,” he says. “That’s another area of opportunity for people with science backgrounds, including physics.”
For graduates interested in sustainability, Crouch’s advice is to take all the opportunities you can for doing industrial internships, and to be proactive about building your network through webinars and industry forums. He also recommends reading widely across different subjects, as climate change is a highly multidisciplinary challenge.
“It’s a really booming market,” Crouch says. “The climate emergency requires immediate and sustained action, and the sector needs people who are passionate about making a difference.” Among the skills that physicists can contribute, he notes the importance of understanding how to work with numbers and uncertainties, as well as the ability to think big. “Topics like cosmology and astrophysics really teach you to think on a different timescale, and outside of the day-to-day.”
Rosemary Pickering, senior sustainable business analyst, Farfetch
In addition to seeking advice from external consultants, many companies are putting together sustainability strategies and employing people in-house to drive progress towards their goals. Rosemary Pickering has combined her environmental values with her interest in fashion by working as a senior sustainable business analyst at Farfetch, a luxury fashion marketplace, which sells everything from purses and bags to activewear by high-end designers.
While studying courses in environmental and atmospheric physics as part of her physics degree, Pickering decided that she wanted to do a sustainability-related master’s, so she enrolled in an MSc course on environmental technology and policy at Imperial College London. “That gave me a completely different perspective on sustainability and the environment,” she says. “Within that, I did a project looking at sustainable fashion.”
In her current role at Farfetch, Pickering focuses on the firm’s sustainability strategy, which has three main “pillars.” One is to encourage customers to switch to purchasing more sustainable options by providing information on the environmental and social impacts of different products. Another is to work towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, by minimizing the distance products have to travel, choosing the greenest transportation methods and shipping each product in the smallest box possible. Finally, Farfetch has launched several circular services, whereby customers can resell products they are no longer using, or have items fixed or updated, instead of buying new ones.
Pickering’s role covers all three of the pillars, and involves reporting on trade performance and looking at which more sustainable products, such as items made of organic cotton, are selling. She also monitors which circular services customers are using, and Farfetch’s overall progress towards its sustainability goals.
“One of the projects I’ve really enjoyed working on was our Conscious Customer Report, which we published externally,” she says. “A lot of people in the [fashion] industry talk about changing trends and patterns, and you can actually see it coming through in the data, which is really exciting.”
Having a physics background has helped equip Pickering with the skills she needs for her job, as she has to be confident with calculating the statistics she is reporting, and also needs to use coding skills in Python for her day-to-day tasks.
For graduates looking for green jobs, Pickering emphasizes that there are more opportunities than you might think. “Many small businesses have a marketing or operations team where 50% of the role is focused on sustainability, because that’s embedded in the company’s mission,” she explains. “There are a lot more jobs out there than just the ones that have ‘sustainability’ in their titles.”
Sunshine and solar panels Cutting carbon from our energy supply is key to tackling the climate crisis. (Courtesy: Lightsource BP)
DECARBONIZING ENERGY SOURCES
Ann Davies, chief operations officer, Lightsource bp
Taking advantage of new technologies will be essential if the world is to achieve its net-zero goals. Renewable energy sources are perhaps the most obvious of these, and the transition to them is already under way.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time to join the energy sector,” says Ann Davies, who is chief operations officer at Lightsource BP, a firm that has been developing solar projects since 2010, and now employs nearly 600 people. She took up her current job after studying physics at the University of Oxford, UK, and gaining experience in several engineering roles after graduating.
Among the main reasons to choose a career in renewables, Davies cites the growth that the sector is experiencing due to the increased focus on climate change and demand for clean energy. “Along with the cost of solar and wind dropping significantly, that makes renewables a really sound economic proposition, which means that investment is at a record high,” she explains. “From a graduate perspective, that means there will be more and more opportunities as your career develops.”
Davies’ work involves leading teams of scientists and engineers working on the planning, implementation and operation of solar projects around the world. She notes that there are lots of problems for scientists to solve, from loading up the grid with renewables to managing intermittency issues.
When recruiting new scientists and engineers, Davies emphasizes the importance of technical grounding. “Physics teaches you how to break down complex problems into simple parts, and we need those skillsets,” she says. In the hiring process, she also values interpersonal skills. “It’s not one person who is going to solve this—it takes a team.”
Davies advises graduates who want to join these efforts to read widely and to connect with people in the industry. Since there are so many different areas of sustainability that physicists can contribute to, she believes it is important to find out what makes you tick as an individual, and how you want to apply your skills. For herself, she finds working in the energy sector rewarding, because it is so universal. “Energy touches everyone,” she says, “so being part of providing it in a responsible way really gets me going when I get up in the morning.”
Hari Chohan, nuclear radiation analyst, UK Atomic Energy Authority
While solar and wind energy might be the first clean-energy technologies that spring to mind, they are not the only low-carbon options. Another relevant area in which many physicists work is nuclear energy, both fission and fusion.
“I consider all nuclear energy to be green energy,” says Hari Chohan, who is a nuclear fusion radiation analyst at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). “My granddad was an engineer and worked on nuclear projects,” he adds, “so I’ve always been pro-nuclear energy.” Chohan developed a stronger interest in nuclear fusion while writing an article about it for one class in his physics degree at Imperial College London.
As a result of these two influences, Chohan decided to do a master’s degree in physics and nuclear technology at the University of Birmingham, UK. He then did a nine-month internship at Fusion for Energy in Barcelona, a body that co-ordinates the EU’s contribution to ITER, which is the largest experimental fusion reactor under construction in the world.
During this internship, Chohan’s main area of work was neutronics, also known as neutron transport, which is the study of the motion of neutrons and how they interact with materials. This is not only important for developing appropriate shielding but also estimating the lifetimes of components. “Neutrons are produced in both fission and fusion,” he explains, “but they have a lot more energy in the case of fusion, so we need to ensure the materials and components we design can withstand them.”
Chohan continues to work on fusion neutronics in his current role at UKAEA, which involves programming, running simulations, analyzing results and writing them up in reports. “As well as working on major international projects, we have a couple of fusion test machines at UKAEA, the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak Upgrade (MAST-U) and EUROfusion’s Joint European Torus, and we’re designing a prototype fusion energy plant, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production, at the moment, so there’s a lot of active research going on,” he says.
Chohan believes accurate public communication about nuclear energy is essential. “In fusion, unlike fission, there will be no high-level nuclear waste generated by the reaction itself, but there will still be a lower level of nuclear waste generated by the interaction of the neutrons with the reactor components,” he says. “All technologies have advantages and disadvantages. To move away from fossil fuels, we will need a mixture of different energy sources, but we can’t do it without nuclear. And the prospect of nuclear fusion is truly exciting.”
Rhiann Canavan, scientific project manager, Crossfield Fusion
While fusion is a long-term goal with huge clean-energy potential once it’s achieved, we don’t have to wait until then to get something positive from the research going into it. There are many by-products along the way that can be useful more immediately, as Rhiann Canavan, who, as of October 2021, worked at the UK-based start-up Crossfield Fusion, discovered.
While studying at the University of Birmingham, UK, Canavan was inspired by a nuclear-physics professor to go into nuclear power. “I knew I wanted to go into a job where I was delivering something useful,” she says, “and nuclear power seemed like it had the potential to change
After graduating with a master's in physics, Canavan studied for a Ph.D. in experimental nuclear physics with the University of Surrey, UK, and the National Physical Laboratory. Her project focused on understanding fast neutron-induced fission reactions, which can be done to make nuclear waste decay faster.
After finishing her Ph.D., Canavan did a summer placement with Crossfield Fusion, which she found through the South East Physics network (SEPnet)—an association of nine university physics departments that supports students in south-east England. “When I read the mission of the company, I really wanted to get involved,” she says. “The end goal is fusion, but there are also short- and mid-term goals, such as using the technology to produce radioisotopes for medical scans.”
After completing her internship, Canavan joined the company in a permanent role as scientific project manager. In 2021, Crossfield Fusion was a start-up with just five employees, so her tasks vary widely. Her role began by helping to build the research reactor, which she then carried out experiments with it. “Some days are lab days when everything has to be spot-cleaned because we’re installing components,” she says. “Other days I’m analyzing data, computer programming or group brainstorming what to try next.”
Canavan says she feels a lot of ownership of the work, having seen the progress from the very early days. “Your heart is really in it and you want it to succeed,” she says. Since deuterium—a key ingredient in fusion reactions—is highly abundant and can be extracted from any type of water, Canavan also points out how much more environmentally friendly it would be to fuel a fusion reactor than to burn fossil fuels. “Instead of digging up coal,” she says, “we could just use sea water.”
The true costs Physicists can help with the financial side of switching to a greener economy. (Courtesy: iStock/Scorpion56)
FINANCE AND ECONOMICS
Rustam Majainah, senior pricing analyst, OVO
Green energy might appear to be all about feats of engineering, but integrating those breakthroughs into society involves many other challenges too, not least from a financial and economic point of view. This is another area where physicists can play a key role. Just ask Rustam Majainah, a physics major who now works as a pricing analyst at OVO, the UK’s largest independent energy supplier.
After studying physics at Royal Holloway, Majainah did a master’s in renewable energy and sustainability at the University of Reading, UK. In the summer between his bachelor’s and master’s program, he did a placement at the renewable-energy company Good Energy, which he found through SEPnet.
In his job at OVO, Majainah uses numerical models to determine the cost of energy. This involves considering many factors, including the cost of generation, the use of cables that bring the energy to people’s homes, and social programs to support vulnerable customers. “I think energy supply is often a forgotten part of the green transition,” says Majainah. “You’ve got the energy generators and networks on one side, and everyday people on the other, and energy suppliers sit in the middle and try to match them up.”
Majainah points out that it’s a time of change in the industry. “With the innovation of smart meters, we’re moving from a system where you give your supplier one reading per quarter to one where we can get that data at a half-hourly level,” he says. In moving to more granular charges, OVO can use that data to pass on savings to their customers if, for example, the wind is blowing and turbines are generating energy, or if electricity is cheap at certain times. More granular charges can also be used to “flatten” energy usage peaks by charging customers less for energy at quieter times, and part of Majainah’s role is looking at the wider policy around that.
“It’s a prickly point,” he explains, “because if energy is cheaper at some times and more expensive at others, how do you encourage customers to change their consumption patterns without unfairly impacting people who don’t have the flexibility to do that?” OVO also looks at fitting people’s homes with electric vehicle chargers, using vehicle-to-grid technology that allows cars to export energy back into the grid when local demand increases.
All of these challenges require people with numerical and analytical skills, which a physics degree gives you a strong grounding in. Additionally, Majainah says that skills in data-analysis programming languages such as Python, which many physics degrees teach, are highly sought-after in the energy sector. “We’re going through big systems transitions,” he says, “so there are plenty of opportunities at OVO and in the industry in general.”
Flora Biggins, Ph.D. student, University of Sheffield, UK
Since wind and solar energy depend on the weather, and are not necessarily being generated most at the times when consumers are using the most electricity, energy storage is a key component of embedding them in our networks. But developing this capacity requires financial investment.
Flora Biggins, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sheffield, as of October 2021, is working on incentivizing companies to make these investments. After graduating with a physics degree from Imperial College London, she decided she wanted to do research relating to sustainability. “I wanted to use my problem-solving skills to work on solutions to climate change, which is the biggest challenge we face,” she says, “and energy storage is really important for decarbonizing electricity.”
Biggins’ research involves creating computational models that use machine learning to predict how prices of energy-storage technologies such as batteries and green hydrogen will evolve over time. She then uses these predictions to advise companies on how to invest in order to maximize their profits, for example by buying the right kind of batteries, or by using batteries to store energy and then sell it on when prices are higher.
In addition to advising companies, Biggins’ work also informs policy. “If I find that energy storage is not very profitable, then it’s important for government organizations to know that,” she explains. “They might respond by introducing subsidies to encourage investment until prices drop to an affordable level.” Predicting future prices is very difficult, as there are numerous factors to consider that are constantly fluctuating. Future prices of green hydrogen are especially tricky to forecast, as it is relatively new, so doesn’t have much historical data to use as a starting point.
To tackle these challenges, the mathematical and computational skills Biggins developed during her physics degree are essential. Besides these technical skills, she says resilience is also necessary to keep going when things don’t go as planned, and she finds that having a positive solutions-focused project helps to motivate her. “It feels good to be working on something that is going to benefit society.”
Lewis Ashworth, program manager, Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change
Many physics majors go into careers in finance, which are another way of influencing how money is invested, and there are green options within this sector too. Lewis Ashworth, for example, as of October 2021, is a program manager at the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC)—a membership body that supports shareholders to drive forward sustainability in the companies they invest in.
As part of his physics degree at the University of Sheffield, Ashworth did a year abroad at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, during which he took courses in climate dynamics of the atmosphere and oceans alongside pure physics. “That opened my eyes to climate change,” he says, “so when I graduated I decided to do a sustainability-focused master’s degree.”
Ashworth did an MSc course on environmental technology and energy policy at Imperial College London before starting his role at IIGCC. He works on several projects, including an initiative called Climate Action 100+, which seeks to ensure that the 167 largest greenhouse-gas-emitting companies in the world reduce their emissions to be in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Other programs that Ashworth works on include educating shareholders on how they can influence the companies they invest in, for example by filing shareholder resolutions or voting against directors. He is also helping to develop a benchmarking process to assess companies’ progress towards the goals of the Paris Agreement. This uses various indicators, such as whether the companies have set net-zero targets.
Ashworth regularly does presentations to colleagues and investors as part of his job, so communication skills are essential, alongside an understanding of the statistics and data that he is presenting. He finds his physics background gives him confidence in understanding the various topics he speaks about, from electric vehicles to using hydrogen to decarbonize the steel industry. “As a physicist, these are not alien concepts,” he says, “so it’s nice to feel confident in your ability to decipher what’s going on.”
One common challenge facing people like Ashworth who work in sustainability is that they have high aspirations for making change, but often face barriers and find progress to be slower than they would like. “But when something big happens,” he says, “like a company announcing that they are going to commit to a target that you have been pushing for, and you know you were part of it, that’s when you know you are really making a difference.”