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Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund supports more of tomorrow’s physics researchers

8 June 2022

Latest awardees announced of the fund that aims to increase diversity in the subject at PhD level.

Nine physics research students – who otherwise would be unable to undertake postgraduate studies – are to benefit from an innovative fund set up by leading physicist Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Institute of Physics (IOP).

The Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund (the Fund) was started to encourage diversity in physics by assisting talented students from under-represented groups to study it at PhD level.

Dame Jocelyn, a former president of the IOP, was awarded the 2019 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her role in the discovery of pulsars, and for her continued scientific leadership and engagement with the scientific and wider communities.

The Breakthrough Prize award included £2.3m, which she immediately donated to the IOP to help counter what she described as “the unconscious bias that still exists in physics research”, adding: “I don’t need the money myself, and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put it to.”

The Fund was the result. It is a doctoral scholarships fund that aims to improve diversity, by assisting students from groups under-represented in the physics research community to undertake physics PhD programmes.

Those encouraged to apply include women, people with refugee status, ethnic minorities, disabled or financially disadvantaged students, and others who would otherwise struggle to complete a course of postgraduate study due to their circumstances.

Rachel Youngman, Deputy Chief Executive of the IOP, said: “This year I am delighted we are supporting nine well-deserving students to further their studies and build their careers in physics.

“We need physicists in order to rise to the economic challenge of building a zero-carbon economy and the more diverse we can make our pool of physics researchers and innovators the stronger and more creative it will be.

“The Fund set up by Dame Jocelyn is already helping to achieve this. To date, it has enabled 21 students to embark upon a physics PhD, helping them to start their journey to a rewarding and exciting career.

“Among those we have assisted so far are a young woman who embarked upon research into radiographic analysis tools for cancer detection, a young man whose parents were forced to flee violence and discrimination in their homeland, who was able to pursue cosmology research, and a young woman who went onto a PhD programme to develop an infrared detector capable of non-invasively measuring blood glucose.

“There is no doubt that this Fund will ultimately benefit many people, and I am delighted to congratulate this year’s awardees.”

In 2019/20, just 25% of physics undergraduate students were female, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. This has increased from 22% in 2010/11, but still does not reflect the proportion of the population who are female.

Professor Helen Gleeson, Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Leeds and IOP Representative to Council for Inclusion and Diversity, is the Chair of the Fund Committee.

She said: “Once again it was extremely difficult to decide upon the awardees; the competition was tough.

“It is such a pleasure though to be helping nine very worthy students this year.

“The successful applicants are all involved in exciting research projects that will bring benefits to all of us, and will also be inspiring others in their roles as ambassadors for the programme.

“As ever, I am delighted to be able to help them on their career journeys.”

The 2022 awardees are:

  • Abbie Chadwick, studying at the University of Liverpool
  • Aishwarya Chanady Babu, studying at University College Dublin School of Physics
  • Anika Aynul, studying at University College London
  • Cheng Qian, studying at the University of Oxford
  • Elizabeth Reeja Mathen, studying at the University of Hertfordshire
  • Gayathri Eknath, studying at Cardiff University
  • Jessica Howell, studying at the University of Edinburgh
  • Olivia Tindle, studying at Sheffield Hallam University
  • Stephen Donegan, studying at Newcastle University