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Ayngaran Thavanesan: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2021

Theoretical physicist Ayngaran's parents came to the UK as refugees from Sri Lanka. His unwavering passion for cosmology has seen him overcome hurdles and self-doubt, emulating his parents’ resilience to complete a PhD at Cambridge.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

My work in cosmology concerns studying the universe at the most fundamental level. I literally get to work on the wavefunction of the universe, and I don’t think there’s anything cooler! To continue forging ahead in the fields of academics who I idolised when I was a teenager (and still do), such as Faraday and Hawking, is a dream come true. The field of theoretical physics is so diverse, and the impact it has on society always feels understated.

Without the creative thinking and inspiration for ideas which come from theoretical physicists, whether that be satellites allowing instantaneous communication between opposite ends of the planet, or the quantum materials used in DNA sequencing, the world would be a completely different place, and definitely a worse one.

To have the chance to contribute to ideas which transform how we understand reality is a privileged position. It is one which very few, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, ever get to have. As somebody who is likely the first from my ethnic group to pursue the field of cosmology, I want to do the impossible. I want to show the Tamil community, and those that have ostracised us, that we can do anything. To this end, I hope to establish a fund in the names of my parents to help students from the Tamil and other communities, who have faced violence and discrimination.

Photo by Andrew Sellek

My Tamil family came to the UK as refugees from Sri Lanka, and like Faraday, I am the first from my low-income family to have any academic qualifications. To now be working on such challenging research is hopefully something which will demonstrate to people like me that one’s past and circumstances can be inconsequential of one’s future.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I have always been a keen mathematician and scientist. I believe the more analytical nature of these subjects is something I have a natural inclination towards. Through many hours of reading and watching popular science material as a teenager, I came across various giants in physics, such as Dirac and Maxwell, as well as many intriguing directions within the field of theoretical physics. However, it was the grand, ambitious nature of cosmology – a field which attempts to understand the universe as a whole – that really grabbed me, and apparently never let go.

The universe is quite literally everything, and to derive theorems about it seems almost laughable, but somehow we have. The cosmological principle which in a sense drives me, is that the universe looks the same wherever you are in it, so it doesn't care who you are or what your background is, and we all have the capability to study it. This fact instilled in me the basic truth that the extent to which I could understand the universe is no different from any of my peers. My goal now is to be an example of this principle in practice, by becoming a theoretical physicist who understands the universe at the most fundamental level, and inspires others from all backgrounds to do the same.

“Not only does an award like this remove financial barriers, which is one of the main barriers to entry for recipients like myself, but it also gives us a platform to interact with like-minded peers and seniors.”

What does winning the scholarship mean to you – and what difference will it make?

The Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship is a dream come true. As an undergraduate student at Cambridge I was never successful in any of these kinds of applications, so to win something as big as this seems almost like a mistake. My previous Cambridge college offered various scholarships and funding for students, but they would always go to peers who looked better on paper, since students’ backgrounds were never taken into consideration.

My undergraduate experience made me doubt my ability as a physicist, and lose hope in my dream of pursuing a career in physics. However, thankfully, I came across great mentors during my MSc at Queen Mary, University of London and from the departments at Oxford and Cambridge, who saw my potential and never let my dream die. Admittedly my previous experience made me hesitant about coming back to Cambridge to complete my PhD, but I am grateful to my new college, Jesus College, which with our new master, Sonita Alleyne, has demonstrated a real commitment to equality and diversity and made me feel at home already.

In addition, I can’t thank the Institute of Physics enough for the confidence they have instilled in me through this award. Not only does an award like this remove financial barriers, which is one of the main barriers to entry for recipients like myself, but it also gives us a platform to interact with like-minded peers and seniors. I believe that the impact this award is going to have on my career will be completely unanticipated. I now believe more than ever that I can realise my goal of being a physicist who truly makes their mark in academia in terms of both my research and social influence.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

It would be too difficult to list all the details regarding challenges I have faced, but I would like people to know that like many others I have had my fair share of problems regarding physical and mental health, discrimination, unsupportive seniors and peers, finances, the list goes on… If people would like to learn more about my journey up until this point, they are welcome to read my personal blog.

Pursuing a career in academia is a tough road, and I would be lying if I said that the difficult personal circumstances that I have faced have not made this more difficult. However, although my and my family’s path in life has been a difficult one, I am comforted by the fact that we have taken the hits and kept moving forward. I am grateful for the resilience I have learnt from my parents and sister, who are Rocky Balboas in their own right.

Everybody experiences both negativity and positivity in life. The love from the people who have been unyielding positive forces in my life has made me strong, while the hate and negativity from others has made me unstoppable.

What would you say to those who have also faced barriers to following their dreams to pursue physics at university and beyond?

Like anything in life, it’s not about how many times you get knocked down, but rather how many times you get back up. I recently saw a great talk by Dr Daniel Green from UC San Diego, where he emphasised that nobody is born a physicist. It comes with practice. Do whatever you can to get that practice, and don’t let things like rejections from research placements stop you in your tracks.

I would also recommend UniArk, which is a non-profit organisation started by myself and other university students with the aim of promoting access to UK/Europe/US higher education for promising high-school students in third-world countries coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. We aim to provide guidance and tutoring through the application and admission process of top universities completely free of charge.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

There have been various recent discoveries, such as holography and dark energy, which have left the physics community at a precipice. We now as a community need to find the strength to overcome this steep barrier. Diversity is a strength. Without it, we lose out on the different perspectives which can come with it. The out-of-the-box thinking which a diverse new cohort of physicists can bring is sorely needed.

“Great knowledge comes from the humblest of origins” - The Man Who Knew Infinity

What would you say to someone thinking about applying to the fund?

I would encourage anybody from any disadvantaged background to apply. The BBGSF is unique, as there are no other funds specifically targeting disadvantaged students at this academic level. The opportunity to interact with other extraordinary students from across the country is unparalleled. I think Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the IOP are going to make a truly remarkable impact through it.

You only fail when you stop trying, so to quote Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell herself, go for it! In the application forms, just be yourself. I think if you are truly somebody who can be an ambassador for this fund, it will shine through in your application. I would also be happy to try and help prospective applicants directly through our UniArk platform.

However, my insightful PhD supervisor Dr Will Handley reassuringly reminded me that whether it’s scholarships, fellowships or any other types of funding applications, there’s a huge element of luck involved, so don’t be disheartened by any unsuccessful applications. If you have been put forward by your university for this scholarship, you should be assured that you have the potential to be a top PhD student.

Ayngaran is on Twitter @AGNPhysics