Síle Nic Chormaic, Physics Lecturer

First job of the day – ensure I am in the right place! I work both as a lecturer in the Physics Department at University College Cork and conduct research in the Photonics Centre at Tyndall National Institute - juggling two locations takes a lot of forward planning.

Most days, I concentrate on teaching activities in the morning and then head to Tyndall in the afternoon to meet with my team of researchers that makes up the Quantum Optics Group. 

This morning I am with a large group of budding engineers giving a lecture on mechanics.

All our final year students conduct research projects as part of their degree programme. Today, after the lectures, I spend a couple of hours helping to bring together compatible students, projects and supervisors. 

The match is important to make sure that the student has an enjoyable experience, learning new skills that he or she will use in the workplace or if they choose to study for a higher degree such as an MSc or PhD.

Once teaching is over, I head to the research laboratory to see how things are going there.

The lab is a hive of activity with a number of experiments running. In one experiment we have a really complex optical and vacuum setup where we cool rubidium atoms down to 50 microKelvin using a technique known as laser cooling. 

This allows us to study the quantum nature of atoms - a very hot topic in physics as a quantum revolution is taking place. Tried and tested theories are now being used to realise a host of quantum-based technologies such as computing, sensing and information security. 

There’s so much instrumentation being used for the laser-cooling setup that it is quite daunting and a real challenge to master. 

We use a very expensive and delicate infra-red laser system for this experiment: the laser beam consists of a stream of light particles known as photons. We shine the laser onto rubidium atoms and, on collision, each photon removes some energy from each atom. This slows each atom down, thereby reducing the average temperature of the atoms.

In another experiment we explore novel types of laser systems, known as microlasers due to their size. 

The microlasers we use are about the size of a speck of dust and can often be confused with just that! When working, they emit bright green light because of the materials they are made of (glass doped with erbium ions). 

These microlasers can be used for a lot of different purposes and need to be pumped optically in order to emit the green light. 

One exciting use of these lasers is as miniature mechanical systems for switching devices in optical circuits. To make the microlasers we shine light from a very powerful CO2 laser onto some glass powder to melt it – when the CO2 laser is on we have to be very careful since it could immediately burn a hole in human flesh or cause blindness.

I need to organise a trip for myself and one of my research students to visit our collaborators in Germany and Austria next month. 

The research group meet to discuss who should travel and the benefits to the people involved- there are usually more volunteers than places so this is a tough decision to make.

At 4pm I’m off to meet a visiting US professor who is giving a talk on “50 Years of the LASER” to celebrate the laser’s historic birthday since it first come into operation in 1960. 

This is part of a series of seminars for all the staff and students, which I organise, so I’m delighted to see a good turn out.

7pm and time to leave. I list all the jobs to be tackled tomorrow and send e-mails to the researchers to make sure they know what to do. 

Another work day is over and I’m off to the gym to relax.

Síle Nic Chormaic



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