Meet Dr. Alex Alexandrova, a researcher who brings accelerator science to the industry!

What is your scientific background, and which topic are you working on at the moment?

I’m a goal-oriented person who wants to see results, maybe not immediately but in the near future. I have always been interested in seeing direct applications for the work that I’m doing rather than in new research where I may never see how it’s going to be applied.

Until a couple of years ago, I was a Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow at the Department of Physics at Liverpool University between 2012 and 2015, and I belonged to a training network (LA3NET) which worked on improving laser technologies for particle accelerators. I have recently co-founded a new technology company called D-Beam. My project has developed a better method for characterising high velocity targets, allowing precise measurements even in radiation-exposed environments.

How did you choose your field of study?

I thought the more fascinating career path for me was to join a company that worked on the edge between two different sciences – maybe biophysics. This is where and when people with different expertise and completely different knowledge come together and produce something out of the blue and completely new.

Then, at the end of the third year of my PhD, I was talking with my supervisor about career paths, and he mentioned a business idea. I thought:  “wow, this can be a way to make this job for myself. I can try to start this business and see how it goes, and I can invite different people to work with me on different projects. Maybe we will come up with something really great.”

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

It was quite challenging to set up the company, to be honest, because it involves legal and financial issues. I had to learn quite a lot and put my head into a different frame of mind.

It was like doing three jobs at the same time: finishing my thesis, doing my doctorate, and at the same time trying to run this company. We don’t have a very big budget – we can’t hire an accountant or people like that – so I’m doing all that by myself. It’s a really steep learning curve – but I like it!

I really enjoy learning something new. Sometimes I found something very tedious, and took the time to find the best solution available, because I don’t really like reinventing the wheel.

For example with accounts and finances – the easiest way is to use an Excel table but there are more programmes already developed out there that do this  better.  When I find the right tool and the right solution, it’s easy and quite interesting. The whole process of learning about business is going to stay with me for the rest of my life.

Alex with Carsten Welsch in front of a novel gas jet-based beam profile monitor for which she was developing a laser-based density monitor/ LA3NET

In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?

I would love this company to work and produce a good income, and then more people could be invited to work for D-Beam, to create new and better solutions.

Did you have a role-model that influenced your decision to become a scientist?

What I found fascinating was that Marie Sklodowska Curie taught herself everything, starting from nothing, not even knowing the language of the country where she was studying, to become a leading scientist.

She was always curious and challenging herself in different directions.

I call it restless mind; you’re always looking for something, which is probably why she became involved in industry because she reached a certain point and wondered what to do next. I found this inspiring.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

Back in Russia I found that in my laboratory, the world was a bit biased, so I had some trouble being a woman. But as soon as I proved my point and they saw that I knew quite a lot and sometimes even more than them, the men would appreciate my input.

When I moved to the UK I found that here it’s more gender equal – people listen to you no matter how you look, how you dress, if you’re wearing a skirt or jeans.

However, I have found that being a young person is not that easy, because I’m going for different business meetings and network events. If there are just start-ups, lots of young people are present, but if it’s talking about something serious it’s usually talking to men much older than me. Sometimes it’s quite challenging to focus their attention on what I’m trying to say.

I don’t know the experience of men – I’m sure they have their own troubles as well!