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Vanessa Emeka-Okafor: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2021

Thanks to encouragement and bags of hard work – and this fund – Vanessa is living her dream of studying exoplanets. She dismisses the idea of "genius" and promises that physicists can come from any background.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

I study exoplanets. More specifically, I analyse their atmospheric composition and characteristics. I’ve always loved planets, starting with our own planet, Earth. I wanted to know everything about how it worked, what powers it, what makes it habitable.

Because when we look into space it’s barren, right? There is literally no place like home. It’s our refuge, we live here, we breathe here, this is our safe haven in the vast darkness of space.

It’s a very important engine that supports all the life as we know it, so naturally I wanted to study that! And that led me to exoplanets. I think the possibility of finding signatures of life on an Earth-like exoplanet would be one of the biggest breakthroughs of our lifetime.

We have about 100 million stars in our galaxy alone and every single one of those stars has at least one planet orbiting it. So, it’s not a matter of if we find life, but when we find life, and studying exoplanet atmospheres is the roadmap that takes us there.

What does physics mean to me? It means everything. It’s given me a way to view the world and the universe with such a different understanding and appreciation. I feel truly grateful to exist in this universe, no matter how small a contribution I am.

I’m thankful to call Earth home – we have a wonderful magnetosphere that protects us from solar flares, we have an active core that makes this planet so dynamic and active, and all these processes are what make us exist. So yeah, I think it’s fascinating to be able to know all of this and just be grateful for it.

I’m passionate about exoplanets because I think the future of the human race is as an interplanetary species. We’ve already found terrestrial exoplanets that could be likened to Earth but to be able to infer whether or not life is present on them or whether such a planet could have the right atmospheric compositions to support life as we know it would mean a lot.

I think a lot of history books will have to be rewritten. It’s one of the biggest questions in astrophysics: “Are we alone in the universe?” We’re contributing towards being able to answer that question and confidently say “no”.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I studied applied physics at university, but I didn’t necessarily know what I was going to do with it. I just knew that I loved planetary science and astronomy, but I didn’t know what my focus was going to be until I did my dissertation research in my final year.

I chose a project on exoplanet atmospheres because it seemed really interesting. I had been researching about it and there were a lot of women in the field that really inspired me, such as Dr Sara Seager and Dr Natalie Batalha, so I was just really excited to do a paper about it. 

“To be recognised with a scholarship that validates all the hard work and challenges I faced to get to this point is a dream come true… I can work on something that I genuinely love without the guilt of feeling that I’m not doing enough to support my family.”

I loved every minute of writing that dissertation and I got to read so many interesting papers. I remember emailing a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and asking if I could use some of her diagrams for my paper and not really expecting to hear anything back and then getting such a sweet, encouraging reply within 20 minutes. 

It was just a such a fun collaborative effort and I thought yeah, I would like to do more of this. 

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

Winning the scholarship means everything to me. I generally don’t win a lot of things. I’ve always been an average B student and I’ve had to work really hard to prove people wrong. 

I used to think that you had to be a genius at something to do it or you had to be naturally gifted at something to do it, so for a long time I didn’t have the confidence to call myself a physicist or believe that I could go for something like this. 

On the other hand, I was also debating if academia was for me as a woman of colour. I think it’s hard to tell yourself that you belong somewhere when you don’t see a lot of people who look like you, so I was always in two minds about going into academia. However, when I found my project, all my fears took a back seat and I just knew I had to go for it. 

To be recognised with a scholarship that validates all the hard work and challenges I faced to get to this point is a dream come true and I couldn’t be more grateful. Coming from a single parent family I always felt guilty about wanting to do a PhD because I felt the pressure to get a corporate job and help my mum. 

It seemed like a selfish decision, but I didn’t want to walk away from something I was passionate about, so I’m very relieved to have this scholarship. I can work on something that I genuinely love without the guilt of feeling that I'm not doing enough to support my family.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?  

Oh gosh, there have been many challenges. I went from having only an AS-level in physics and maths to transferring into the second year of my physics degree, and it was extremely difficult. There was a steep learning curve and I essentially had to teach myself two years of missing knowledge in order to keep up. 

It was the hardest year of my life. I was in tears most of the time and I really struggled, but I kept pushing myself.

Luckily, I came through the other side, graduating with a first and I will always be proud of that achievement. I had people saying to me that I was crazy, that I was never going to be able to catch up, that I should just quit, but I I’m glad I didn’t listen to them.

I had a really encouraging tutor, who was also the head of the department, she said at my interview, “it’s going to be difficult, but if you really want to do this, I believe you can do it”, and that really motivated me.

I will always be thankful to her for that.

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

I would say that you shouldn’t give up on your dreams no matter how impossible it seems. Try to remember that it's a marathon not a sprint. Find a supportive group of friends if you can.

Sometimes the road will be dark, and you’ll have many obstacles in your way, but I promise there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Keep going and I’ll be right there at the end rooting for you and cheering you on!

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

I think diversity in physics is extremely important. Your cultural background, how you were raised and how you reason all affect how you view a scientific result and interpret it. If you work in a diverse team you get to hear different perspectives and ideas that perhaps you hadn’t thought about, which is very important when you’re doing scientific research.

It’s also about feeling and being treated like you belong in this community, that your voice is just as important as others. If you walk into a seminar or a conference and nobody there looks like you, you start to feel like the odd one out and that just shouldn’t be the case in any field.

I feel like the lack of diversity in physics does discourage people of colour, especially women, to not only get into physics but to stay in physics. I think that if we build up this sort of diversity in physics then it’s just going to be a much more progressive and exciting field to work in.

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

Go for it! I knew that this was something that I wanted to apply for as soon as it was announced but I never actually thought I’d get to this point. I would say don’t doubt yourself, you’ve got this far for a reason, you can absolutely do it.