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Careers & Education   >   Norwich Science Festival   >   Optical fibre
Day 3: Optical fibre
1 - Introduction
Meet Neil and Tom, our hosts for the day, who will introduce you to the world of optical fibre with experts from BT and Corning:
2 - Optical fibre with Amelia Winterburn and Stephanie Bally
Photo of Neil Parkin
Neil (host): Now that we know what we're going to be exploring, let me introduce you to two of our industry experts, Amelia Winterburn and Stephanie Bally. They will be explaining what fibre is, how it works and just how important it is in communications networks!
Over to you Amelia and Stephanie....
Photo of Amelia Winterburn
Photo of Amelia Winterburn
Amelia Winterburn
Research Professional, Network Physics, BT
Key qualifications: MSci (Hons) Natural Sciences Specialising in Biophysical Science
What does your job involve? I do mostly experimental research in the optics lab, but my job covers any way we can apply fundamental science to solve real world technology and communication problems. A lot of what I do is the whacky stuff; high risk but high reward.
How did you get into your current role? I did a summer internship with BT Research before the final year of my degree, before joining the Graduate Scheme in 2019.
What did you want to be when you were younger? Marine Biologist, Prime Minister, then a Good-Mad-Scientist. I think I'm achieving the last one.
What do you do outside work? I like sport; tennis, badminton, jogging. I love the beach and the hills, and being anywhere beautiful.
Photo of Stephanie Bally
Photo of Stephanie Bally
Stephanie Bally
Applied Research Degree Apprentice, BT
Key qualifications: Physics, Maths, Electronics A Level. Currently Completing BSc in Digital and Technology Solutions
What does your job involve? As an apprentice my job is all about learning about the different teams in Applied Research whilst developing my software, business and data analysis skills. I've worked in multiple teams but am currently in the Openreach research team where my role involves both lab based network tests and analysis of current fibre networks.
How did you get into your current role? I'm an apprentice so my career journey is only just starting! I decided I wanted to work in technology after completing work experience where I worked with one of the first versions of the VR headset by Oculus. When I found out that BT would pay for my degree and I could be working full time for them gaining invaluable experience in the field, I knew the apprenticeship was the right choice for me.
What did you want to be when you were younger? I love music and play several different instruments, growing up I wanted to play in a professional orchestra. After completing work experience, I moved my focus onto music production combining my love for technology with music and then when I was introduced to devices like VR and smart homes, I wanted to continue to look at the cutting edge technology so looked for tech based jobs in research.
What do you do outside work? I love music so am always looking for a new song to learn on the piano! I also live right next to the beach and enjoy long distance swimming, kayaking and paddle boarding in the sea.
Photo of Amelia Winterburn
Amelia: Thanks for watching our video. I hope it's given you a great insight into optical fibre! We have had some questions submitted relating to this topic in the lead up to Norwich Science Festival which are answered below. However, if you have any questions, we'd love to hear from you. Please email stemexpert@bt.com .
Questions and answers
Question:
What research are you doing about the future of fibre?
student profile
Photo of Stephanie Bally
Answer:
We are always on the look-out for future technology. At the minute we're looking into a type of fibre which is hollow in the middle instead of being made of glass. The "Hollow Core Fibre" means light can travel 30% faster down the core than in conventional glass fibre, meaning even more information at faster speeds! These fibres can also be less sensitive to temperature, and can go round tighter corners with less light escaping from the core.
Question:
Can you explain a bit more about the physical make-up of a fibre-optic cable?
student profile
Photo of Amelia Winterburn
Answer:
The centre of the fibre is called the fibre core, it is made of glass. Surrounding this glass is a layer called cladding that has a lower refractive index, meaning light is trapped inside the core. This fibre is then wrapped in a layer of thin plastic to keep it safe. Lots of these fibres are bundled together to create a cable, where each individual fibre can service up to 32 customers.
Got a question? email stemexpert@bt.com
3 - Have a go activities
Photo of Tom Bowman
Tom (host): Now it's your turn to have a go. You're going to be bending light and then sending secret messages through it! You can download the activity pack to get step by step instructions.
Downward arrow
Download activity pack
4 - Career profiles
Photo of Neil Parkin
Neil (host): As you may imagine there are many different roles in the world of optical fibre. Take a look at some of the roles that people have at Adastral and across BT.
Photo of Trevor Linney
Photo of Trevor Linney
Trevor Linney
Openreach Research Director, BT
Key qualifications: Chartered Engineer, Master of Physics (MPhys) and MSc in Telecommunications Engineering
What does your job involve? Getting to use brand new science and emerging technologies to improve broadband speeds for millions of people across the UK.
How did you get into your current role? I joined BT as a physics graduate in 2002 in the network technology centre.  I then progressed though roles in network design, network control systems, business management, network architecture and then returned to my roots in the research department.
What did you want to be when you were younger? Growing up I loved taking things apart and understanding how things worked (though admittedly I wasn't always great at putting them back together!).  That combined with a passion for science fiction meant I was designed to be an experimental physicist.
What do you do outside work? Basically I am your classic geek - playing video games, reading and when I get enough time even watching a film.
Photo of Sophie Minoughan
Photo of Sophie Minoughan
Sophie Minoughan
Researcher, Optical Access Transmission, BT
Key qualifications: Physics MSci from King's College London. Currently completing a PhD in Single Molecule Biophysics (2021) from The Francis Crick Institute and UCL
What does your job involve? A lot of my research revolves around optical physics and aims to better understand the science behind our fibre network. This involves a mix of gathering data in the lab and writing bespoke analysis algorithms to interpret the results.
How did you get into your current role? My PhD project used magnetic and optical physics to study interactions within the human immune system. As part of this I spent a lot of my time writing analysis algorithms and wanted to move into a career that utilised my optical physics and programming knowledge. BT research seemed like the perfect fit!
What did you want to be when you were younger? Either an inventor or an artist – anything creative. My Optics research may not end up in the Tate anytime soon but it certainly fuels my creative side!
What do you do outside work? I spend a lot of my free time crafting. I mostly Crochet and have a few of my patterns published.
Photo of Violeta Novakovic
Photo of Violeta Novakovic
Violeta Novakovic
Graduate – Research and Innovation, BT
Key qualifications: 11 GCSE's, 3 Alevels in Chemistry, Biology and English Literature, First Class Masters of Chemistry Degree from the University of East Anglia.
What does your job involve? As a team we conduct business critical research and we leverage partnerships with universities and other institutions to work together on projects.
How did you get into your current role? From university I joined the BT graduate scheme.
What did you want to be when you were younger? When I was younger I wanted to be a lawyer but then realised science was much more fun and exciting.
What do you do outside work? I am a cover dance teacher at a local theatre school.
Photo of Andrew Lord
Photo of Andrew Lord
Andrew Lord
Senior Manager, Optical Networks Research, BT
Key qualifications: BA Physics
What does your job involve?  I lead a team of 10 people researching all aspects of optical fibre communications. Recently we have got involved in quantum communications and this involves very strange properties of atoms and photons, which can exist in two places at the same time.
How did you get into your current role? I joined BT in 1985 from Oxford University and have followed the optical fibre miracle pretty much from the start. After many years working on BT's current fibre network, I moved into research around 2010 and took on the leadership of BT's optical and, more recently, quantum research.
What did you want to be when you were younger? A classical guitar concert performer.
What do you do outside work?  I am a dad first and foremost. I love composing music, solving maths puzzles, playing GO, cooking and origami. I have been known to give concerts on my Renaissance lute.
5 - Corning: "The glass age"
Photo of Tom Bowman
Tom (host): Meet Laura and Ian from Corning, a multinational company that deliver innovative products through their expertise with specialty glass. Laura and Ian have picked out a brilliant video that will amaze you as they introduce a whole new way of thinking about glass.
Photo of Laura Baskeyfield
Photo of Laura Baskeyfield
Laura Baskeyfield
Key Account Manager, Corning
Key qualifications: BEng (HONS) Mechanical Engineering
What does your job involve? My job involves developing and maintaining long-term relationships with strategic accounts in my region, in order to achieve growth and company objectives.  We work with these accounts to develop and sell fibre to the home solutions that meet the needs and wants of the customer.
How did you get into your current role? After university I joined the engineering graduate scheme at Virgin Media.  This was a 2 year rotational scheme that involved placements in various engineering departments within the company.  I landed from the scheme in transmission engineering, where we were responsible for the implementation of the backbone network for the company.  After 7 years I fancied a change from data centres and wanted to see a different part of the network, I joined Corning in 2017, looking after the BT Openreach account.
What did you want to be when you were younger? I wanted to be an officer in the Royal Air Force.
What do you do outside work? Outside work I have two dogs and a horse to look after.
Photo of Ian Cowser
Photo of Ian Cowser
Ian Cowser
Application Engineer, Corning
Key qualifications: BSc (Hons) Design & Manufacture Engineering
What does your job involve? My job involves speaking to customers and other engineers and understanding what they are trying to do with respect to Optical Networks.  I then try to put together a solution of components and products that will achieve what the customer is trying to do. It's like solving large puzzles every day.
How did you get into your current role? I left school after my 'O' levels and went straight into engineering with an automotive apprenticeship in tool making! During this time I gained an HNC and HND in Mechanical Engineering. Following this the company sponsored me to go back to university to study for a degree. I then left the automotive industry for cable making, and was lucky to be involved in the new technology of optical fibre and its applications and was involved in some cutting edge projects and Optical firsts in the UK.
What did you want to be when you were younger? I wanted to be an outdoor pursuits instructor! Canoeing and Climbing.
What do you do outside work? Lots of walking with my dog "Bailey" and recently started to learn to Paddleboard.
Photo of Laura Baskeyfield
Laura: Thanks for watching Corning's video! Have you ever considered just how great glass really is and how frequently you use it day-to-day? We have had some questions submitted relating to this topic in the lead up to Norwich Science Festival which are answered below. However, if you have any questions, we'd love to hear from you. Please email stemexpert@bt.com or join us live between 13:45 - 14:30 on 13th October for the Q&A session.
Questions and answers
Question:
How is the glass so strong and durable?
student profile
Photo of Laura Baskeyfield
Answer:
The glass used in optical fibre has always been physically strong. Under tension, it is stronger than both high-tensile steel and titanium. The main reason for this is because of its design and composition. Unlike other glass objects such as beakers or ornaments which contain impurities – making them more fragile – optical fibre is extremely pure. So pure, that looking through a 5km thick block of the material would be the same as looking through a normal (clean) window!
Question:
How thin is the glass in optical fibres? Do they vary at all or are they a standard size?
student profile
Photo of Ian Cowser
Answer:
Optical fibres are as thin as a strand of human hair. Overall the diameters are the same for the majority of fibres. However the core of the fibre that is used to transmit the light along the fibre does differ in diameter. Different types of communication signals require different kinds of fibre for efficient transmission. That's why Corning offers both single-mode (best for long distances) and multimode (more efficient for short distances) fibres.
Got a question? email stemexpert@bt.com
6 - Final thoughts from our hosts
7 - Related STEM learning content
These videos from our STEM learning programme are related to Optical fibre:
What is total internal reflection?
Suggested age range: 11+
A demo showing how total internal reflection makes communicating with optical fibres work.
What is full fibre?
Suggested age range: 11+
An introduction to how broadband is delivered today and how it is going to be delivered in the future.
What are standing waves?
Suggested age range: 11+
Demo showing how you can see standing waves and why these matter for communicating with optical fibres.
Day 4: Health >