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Cheng Qian: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2022

Fascinated by geophysical instabilities, Cheng has overcome difficulties and doubts to take on a dream research project that will inform future climate projections.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

There is a geophysical process that drives some atmospheric cyclones and some ocean eddies. We can provide conditions for it to happen, and observe it, in a water tank.

The water tank is a bit special. It has a contrast of temperature between the inner and outer cylindrical boundaries, with the inner cylinder being cooled like the cool polar regions of the Earth and the outer boundary being heated like the warm tropical regions. The water tank can also be rotated like our Earth rotates, but at different speeds to be driven into different flow regimes.

I feel excited that I can do experiments and simulations with this water tank, investigating a geophysical instability called baroclinic instability. This instability releases available potential energy, turning it into kinetic energy that drives eddies that transport heat. It’s wonderful to be able to study this process in a laboratory that can make a difference to future climate projections.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I like observing natural things in general and I’m fascinated by instability problems. The combination of them in geophysical systems is just a wonderful topic. I didn’t realise it was possible to study geophysical instabilities in a lab until I applied to graduate school. Then I discovered this wonderful lab that was doing fluid dynamics experiments, investigating geophysical fluid dynamics for the study of the Earth and other planets.

The interesting thing was, I found that I kept encountering past members of this lab before and during graduate school interviews. I realised that maybe these meet-ups happened because my interest was somehow aligned with observing this type of water tank experiments. So here I am now doing water tank experiments in the lab!

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

This scholarship has a great theme and purpose, and I feel happy to be associated with it. This scholarship means I can now be more flexible in managing my time in the final stages of my study. I’ll be able to spend more time analysing, understanding and interpreting the experimental and numerical simulation details, delving more deeply into the books and literature and perhaps also be more open to opportunities to present my laboratory work to the public.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

One big challenge for me has been due to gaps in my knowledge that have arisen from my circumstances. It was challenging for me to understand the fundamental equations and terms in graduate study initially. Things all seemed so unfamiliar.

Due to personal circumstances, my undergraduate preparation wasn’t very relevant. I had a bachelor’s degree in computer science, which is not closely related to geophysical studies. Also due to personal circumstances, I had to have a period of employment before applying to graduate school. Even though it was a research appointment, the research context was very different from what I’m learning in graduate school. I also had many doubts and personal struggles.

My supervisor guided me in learning the fundamental concepts by patiently going through them one after another. It was a difficult process, but I got there eventually with people’s help.

“I feel diversity in physics is not something that we should need to prove on its merits, as the opposite of diversity just does not feel right.”

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

My belief is that sometimes it is okay to give up on a dream – but only for valid reasons. There are certain barriers, when you think about it, that are not that valid, so in the future you might regret giving up if you don’t try to overcome them. There may be certain reasons which are very pragmatic and real. Sometimes, giving up a dream can be a wise decision, and can even be an opportunity leading to other dreams and happiness.

It’s not about chasing or giving up a dream, it’s about choosing happiness. If studying physics makes you happy, then it's likely it will be a good dream.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

I believe diversity is important because it is a basic and valid assumption. Diversity in physics arises because people in general are diverse, physicists are people, and therefore physicists should reflect that diversity. I feel diversity in physics is not something that we should need to prove on its merits, as the opposite of diversity just does not feel right.

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

I recommend you give it careful consideration. The application may take time, but you get the experience of thinking about and writing about your past, and to present your project during the interview phase. The application process helped me to think and reflect and I feel more encouraged after going through the different stages of the application.