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#PhysicsGotMeHere 2024


From metal fatigue to large-scale rail

Duncan Barton

Where do you work and what do you do?

I work for Rio Tinto, a multinational metals and mining company. I have had various roles in my time at Rio Tinto, focused on supporting rail and port operations.

I am currently part of the Simandou project team, working on what will be one of the largest greenfield integrated mine and infrastructure investments in Africa, with more than 600 kilometres of new multi-use rail together with port facilities.

Prior to joining Rio Tinto, I led international programs for a tech start-up which developed a patented solution for real-time detection of fatigue cracks in metals and composites. The company focused on aviation, with my role supporting Airbus, Embraer, and several Air Forces.

What type of physics did you train in?

I initially chose to study physics to become an astronomer. During the later stages of the undergraduate programme, I was convinced to change to atomic and molecular physics, developing an apparatus to measure electron clouds surrounding noble gasses and simple molecules.

I was fortunate to be mentored by Prof. James (Jim) Williams and be surrounded by a small team of like-minded individuals, eventually completing a PhD on a novel and challenging instrument.

How do you use your physics training in your current role?

My career has taken a meandering path. I got my first ‘real’ job at a tech start-up who were looking for a physicist with a background in vacuum and electronics.

I was given the opportunity to work across the globe and develop my program management skills in both research and development and real-world projects (including a small part in the certification of the Airbus A380).

My current role requires the ability to work in a complex environment, with competing demands and divergent needs from multiple stakeholders. Physics provides the foundation of how I approach the challenges we are trying to overcome.

The ability to work through a complex problem, which you cannot see, feel, or touch, and to simplify it into manageable ‘chunks’ is a core skill developed in a physics degree.

Physics trained me how to think through problems at a deeper level, to be naturally curious, and to continue to ask 'why'.

What is one piece of advice you would give a new physics graduate?

Physics can truly take you in multiple directions … if you let it.

Grasp opportunities when offered, even if they feel uncomfortable at the time, and who knows where you will end up.

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