Interviewing an Astrobiologist

ICL UK works in partnership with STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council), hosting underground laboratory space for a number of important scientific research projects. Christopher Toth is the youngest of the scientists working underground at Boulby Mine. Here, Christopher tells us more about his work as a scientist.

Tell us a bit about yourself…
My name is Christopher Toth, I’m 24 years young and I’m originally from Billingham, though I live in Ingleby Barwick now.

What were you doing before you started working at the Boulby Underground Laboratory?
I started by completing a BSc (Hons) Physics degree at Hull University and as soon as I graduated, I had my heart set on becoming a physics teacher. So my next step was to enrol on a teacher training course, which I passed with flying colours. Unfortunately, teaching wasn’t for me so I left that career for something else…

How did you end up working at the Boulby Underground Laboratory?
When I left teaching, I really wanted to stay in the North East of England, but physics jobs are hard to come by in the area. Since school, I have taken an interest in the experiments which are held at the underground lab, so I decided to pester them for a job. Here I am!

Why is the laboratory underground?
We do a lot of ultra-low background research, meaning the experiments are away from as much radiation as possible. Everything gives off radiation, but the sun gives off the most. It pelts the Earth’s surface constantly, which makes it difficult to listen for very small signals. That’s why we’re underground, below a kilometre of rock, which shields us from the radiation and allows to listen. We refer to it as a one of the quietest places in the universe.

How much time do you spend underground?
I would say I spent the majority of my time underground, at least three days per week. However, when we begin new experiments, we spend much more time in the laboratory. For example, we began a new experiment recently and we spent two full weeks underground getting everything prepared and set up.

What’s it like to work so far underground?
It gets very hot! It is particularly difficult when we have a lot of materials to transport for our experiments, but it’s great. You can’t ever get away from the fact that you’re conducting experiments a kilometre underground, which makes the role much more interesting – that never gets old!

Is it just Dark Matter that you’re researching?
No, we actually do all kinds of scientific experiments in the laboratory as it is an ideal place to carry out research. From astrophysics to biological experiments, as well as working with geologists, we practice all kinds of science.

STFC Dark Matter LaboratoryDo you work with any other organisations?
Yes, we work with lots of teams around the world, sharing knowledge and collaborating. From the US to Europe, we also work with universities and companies, taking on all kinds of different projects.

How would you feel if you discovered Dark Matter?
My team and I would be so thrilled – that’d be terrific! Finding Dark Matter would be a huge step forward for humanity.

What’s your favourite part of your role?
Just getting stuck into everything and the range of experiments, as well as the high profile scientists who pass through our laboratory. In an everyday laboratory, you may just focus on one or two experiments whereas here there are many. I really enjoy using the high precision instruments and setting up areas for experiments and studies – it’s just the whole diversity of it.

What advice would you give to anyone else looking to pursue a career in science?
Be relentless! If you want to do something, get out there and do it, work hard and achieve it.

What do you hope to have achieved in the next ten years?
Dark Matter would be a nice find. I just want to be able to say that I’ve really help push forward all of the experiments that we’ve had in here – to say I’ve contributed to pushing the frontiers of science, adding to humanity’s knowledge.