Alumni profile - Henry Preston
My role is to provide support to the UK's current Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR) fleet through post irradiation evaluation of fuel and graphite. This involves designing and planning lab experiments and I also perform underwater video inspections of spent fuel in power station cooling ponds, across the AGR sites in the UK, to support continued safe operation.
Why did you study Physics at Queen Mary? Did you have a particular career path in mind?
When first looking at universities I was also considering engineering and really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do – except that I wanted to contribute to making the world more sustainable. From a young age I’ve been very aware of climate change and having problem solver tendencies I’ve always wanted to try and solve that. Physics offered that big picture thinking as well as solving problems through Maths, which I was fortunately good at! Choosing Queen Mary was easy, it felt perfect for me being a campus in London. When I went for the open day in 2012 it was just after the Olympics and Paralympics and with all the history and culture of east London it just felt like the place to be.
What did you enjoy most about studying Physics and were there any academics that had a strong influence on shaping your time and studies here?
There’s such a diverse range of topics covered by physics, so you get to build up this map of how things work from what’s going on at the subatomic level up to the enormity of the universe and what’s fueling stars. We had Teppei Katori in his first year of lecturing teach us nuclear physics, and later radiation detectors. He was a lot of fun and got involved in the evening lectures socials and football games we organised with the Physics society.
Kostya Trachenko was probably the biggest influence as he was my final year project mentor, which was on ‘simulating radiation damage in potential waste forms for nuclear waste encapsulation’ - this research really got me interested in the nuclear sector. So that project was a big reason why I am where I am today and Kostya was such a wonderful mentor - we’d often sit and chat about music after discussing the project and I’ve since come back to Queen Mary and guest lectured for one of his modules. Another is Mark Baxendale who ran the Physics of Energy and the Environment module in second year, which was an interesting subject for me, and I’ve also returned to Queen Mary to be an industry mentor for the group projects module Mark runs.
What prompted you to be a Student Ambassador for the School of Physics and Astronomy? How did you find this overall experience?
A few of my peers were doing it and it seemed great fun to share our passion for Physics and Queen Mary. I’d done music festival stewarding previously, and so it offered another opportunity to have those chance interactions with people. What’s really nice is when you’ve shown people around on their interview day and then they start the following September and remember you!
Can you describe what your current role as a Nuclear Scientist at the UKs National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) involves?
My role is to provide support to the UK's current Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR) fleet through post irradiation evaluation of fuel and graphite. This involves designing and planning lab experiments, as well as providing data analysis and reporting both written and verbal presentations. I also perform underwater video inspections of spent fuel in power station cooling ponds, across the AGR sites in the UK, to support continued safe operation. In addition, I'm leading multiple innovation projects to develop new experimental techniques and implement digital solutions for data recording.
I came runner up in Franco-British Spark! contest with two colleagues from NNL in 2018, at the time a writing competition about the energy transition which culminated in us presenting our ideas at the world nuclear exhibition in Paris! Then in 2019 I was awarded the National Skills Academy Nuclear (NSAN) Science Graduate of the Year, and was also selected as one of the UKs early career representatives to help facilitate innovation sessions at The Global Forum on Innovation for the Future of Nuclear Energy in South Korea. Having these opportunities so early in my career has been truly amazing and indeed life changing.
How did you find the transition from university life to working life? And how did your degree prepare you for your current job?
Quite a shock to the system to be honest - I was chomping at the bit to go and work in industry after 3 years of study but going from a fairly relaxed timetable to getting the train at 6am was hard. It was probably made harder by leaving London, but it’s broadened my horizons further than I could ever imagine - there’s a whole world outside of London. I’m lucky to have made friends wherever I go, so I’ve got friends in just about every corner of the UK which certainly helps.
From my degree, hands-on lab work, delivering projects, written reports and presentations probably helped the most. As well as the ability to independently study and take initiative with curiosity. That independence has really helped me follow what motivates me in the extra-curricular side of my career.
Outside of your role as a Nuclear Scientist, you are also an editor for the Nuclear Future Journal, can you give us an insight into some recent features that have interested and/or
The Nuclear Future Journal is a bimonthly publication for members of the Nuclear Institute (NI), the first half is magazine type content and then technical papers are featured at the back. I co-ordinate the NI’s Young Generation Network (YGN) contribution, which aims to encourage and develop early career nuclear professionals, and ensure their voice is heard in shaping the future of our sector. I run regular interviews with members, under 37, who have had such fascinating careers and lives; we also run opinion articles and industry blogs about the exciting work going on. We recently had an article on “Coated Particle Fuel: The Gobstoppers of nuclear” which is all about the UKs Advanced Fuel Cycle Programme and creating accident tolerant fuels. Other areas of particular interest are the Hydrogen economy and how nuclear can be a part of that energy transition. Later this year the YGN will be attending COP26 in Glasgow to help change the narrative on nuclear and demonstrate how nuclear can work alongside renewables for a clean sustainable and abundant low carbon future for all. Look out for #NetZeroNeedsNuclear on social media.
The Institute of Physics (IOP) aims to inspire people to develop their knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of physics. As a member of the IOP and treasurer for the IOP Cumbria and Lancashire branch, you are clearly an advocate for education and Physics more specifically, why would you encourage prospective students to study Physics at Queen Mary?
Physics offers such a broad range of topics which can satisfy so many areas of interest, from being theoretical and philosophical to practical and applied. It’s often talked about that there is a shortage of STEM skills, and if you’re passionate about achieving Net Zero then we need to encourage more to choose this path – but I’d say even if you don’t study physics (or STEM) you are most welcome to participate in the IOP, anyone can take an interest in physics. Education and communication are key to improving the world so the more we share the better. Likewise, Queen Mary has such quality across so many subjects which means you’ll be mixing with a diverse range of people outside of your course and this really enriches the overall experience.
I recently submitted my application to become a chartered physicist and I’m currently undertaking a post graduate course in Science and Technology Leadership at the University of Liverpool. Having supported the current generation of reactors, I’m quite excited to see inside the next generation of reactors that are expected to come online in the next decade or so.
What advice would you give to current students and recent graduates who are studying/studied Physics and who are considering their career options?
Don’t worry about grades. Find something that motivates you, there are so many interesting challenges out there. If you’re interested in something, then you’ll probably take the time to understand it better. Opportunities exist all around you that you won’t have even thought about and which will most probably be quite scary to begin with, but if you can take just one of them, you’ll be better off for it. And as I have found the early starts a shock to the system, I would say it is definitely worth finding a higher motivation.
Friends I studied with have gone into the BBC, BT, the civil service, laser technology, finance, teaching, and those that carried on studying are on PhDs at CERN or in north America – which really backs up my point about variety.
Were you a member of any societies or volunteering groups during your time at Queen Mary?
The physics society - PsiStar – with this I helped organise the Staff vs Student Football games, Iceland and Norway trips to see the northern lights, and the end of year physics ball. Going out with other subject societies helps give you a more well-rounded experience too; we had some good links with the maths and history societies. I dabbled in various others and have fond memories of the disco society charity nights, as well as going to CUB & Quest radio events.
What was special about your time at Queen Mary?
People really make a place; I met such a variety of great people at Queen Mary and east London as an area will always have a special place in my heart. Variety is something I really enjoy. One day stands out in my final year which really epitomises the fun I had at Queen Mary: we had a full day of lectures, studying in the physics museum and hive before handing in coursework, and then played the first staff vs student football game (we lost on penalties to the staff!), and afterwards I went to a night called Quest on Brick Lane with my housemates, which ended with us all getting bagels. Honourable mentions to “Monday’s calling” for always being a laugh, and the fishing trip and northern lights in Norway. There were also countless other gigs around London I went to at KOKO, the Bussey Building, XOYO as well as festivals in Victoria Park – oh how I wish I still lived by that park!
What are your future aspirations in terms of your career and in life?
I’m very open and adaptable to what could happen next. I recently submitted my application to become a chartered physicist and I’m currently undertaking a post graduate course in Science and Technology Leadership at the University of Liverpool. Achieving these will stand me in good stead to become a technical lead within NNL. Having supported the current generation of reactors, I’m quite excited to see inside the next generation of reactors that are expected to come online in the next decade or so.
I really enjoy coordinating content for the Nuclear Future journal and it’s driven my awareness about how we communicate and tell stories, so science communication is something I’ll be passionate about and hopefully can stay involved in for the rest of my life!
In terms of your career so far, have you had any life-changing moments where you’ve realised you’re doing a job that you really love?
Regularly visiting AGR nuclear power stations and knowing that just those 7, plus Sizewell B, supply nearly 20% of the UKs electricity - this really emphasises the energy density of nuclear and for me, it is awe-inspiring.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be part of such an active community of young people within nuclear, so there’s been several extra-curricular moments that have really made me stop and say wow. I came runner up in Franco-British Spark! contest with two colleagues from NNL in 2018, at the time a writing competition about the energy transition which culminated in us presenting our ideas at the world nuclear exhibition in Paris!
Then in 2019 I was awarded the National Skills Academy Nuclear (NSAN) Science Graduate of the Year, and was also selected as one of the UKs early career representatives to help facilitate innovation sessions at The Global Forum on Innovation for the Future of Nuclear Energy in South Korea. Having these opportunities so early in my career has been truly amazing and indeed life changing.
- Join the Queen Mary Network
- Henry is a volunteer for the Nuclear Institute's Young Generation Network and is supporting the #NetZeroNeedsNuclear campaign in the build up to COP26 later this year.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Henry or engage him in your work, please contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org.