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Gayathri Eknath: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2022

A passionate interest in understanding how stars form has led Gayathri to studying microscopic dust grains in distant galaxies – overcoming discouragement and imposter syndrome to get to where she is today.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

My research uses observations made from telescopes like the Herschel Space Observatory and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope to understand what’s going on within galaxies. In particular, I look at the interstellar medium of galaxies – gas and dust found in space.

Dust grains are tiny, smaller than the width of a human hair, made of carbon and silicon. These grains, although tiny, are incredibly important for a lot of the physics happening within galaxies. Without dust, no new stars would form and stars like our Sun, and even we, would not exist. I try to look at small changes happening within the dust and gas in galaxies to understand more about the environment in which stars form.

As humans, we’re very eager to fit universal laws to things and quite reluctant to appreciate change, but I think it’s really important to understand any variations away from the “norm”, so that we can capture the full picture. This is what I try to do in my daily work by investigating what is causing the variations in dust properties found in high resolution images of galaxies.

Gayathri - Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2022

What drew you to this area of physics?

My childhood dream job was to become an astronaut. But, somewhere along the way, I grew to appreciate the comfort zone we call Earth! My passion for astrophysics began with reading books about planets and the solar system. During my A-levels, I knew I’d have to get through all the other fundamental aspects of physics before being able to specialise as an astrophysicist. As I completed my BSc and MSc degrees, I learnt about astrophysics on much larger scales than just our solar system and I was drawn to areas like the origins of our universe, large-scale structures and what’s happening in galaxies outside our own.

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

I’m honestly still pretty shocked that I’ve received this funding – it was so unexpected! I’m super grateful for being selected. The funding will provide me with a huge sense of security and the financial means to conduct research in the final year of my PhD. Receiving the scholarship has also fuelled my motivation to continue my exciting research and exploit as much of the astrophysical data available to me as possible during the course of my PhD. I’ll be able to explore how dust grains behave in our big neighbour – the Andromeda galaxy – using data from a new large observing programme.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

Since deciding to study physics at A-level and beyond, I have faced various demoralising challenges. These have included a lack of appreciation from people in my choice to study physics, due to them not understanding what jobs it can lead to, a lack of trust in my ability to do research, and people who look like me or come from my background being in a minority in both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. This has led to a shortage of role models and a sense of isolation when expressing ideas for fear of being dismissed.

I always have to remind myself that students of my background are still in a minority within this field in the UK, and the isolation which comes from this is ongoing. This helps me to stay compassionate towards myself and appreciate that the work environment may be more difficult for me than for someone who doesn’t belong to an underrepresented group.

On top of this, every time I start a new project I face massive imposter feelings, telling me that the people who didn’t believe in me were right and that I fluked my way to where I am today. Fortunately, I have two degrees and an ongoing PhD as evidence to keep me in check! I’ve overcome these challenges by gaining a lot of varied training and experience which have been instrumental in helping me to believe in myself. I now try very hard not to believe people when they say I won’t make it. I try to do the task at hand and let the outcome speak for itself.

“Without diversity, there is a huge risk of physics being an echo chamber of like-minded people, which in turn limits the scope of the work we can do.”

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

Be compassionate towards yourself, work hard and take regular breaks. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve likely had to believe in yourself quite a lot already. Keep going.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Often when selecting who we want to spend time with or who is the best person for an interviewed position, we tend to prefer the candidates that we most identify with. Without diversity, there is a huge risk of physics being an echo chamber of like-minded people, which in turn limits the scope of the work we can do. Research ideas do not happen in isolation or without conversations with a diverse set of people.

Without diversity, we end up in the same boring cyclic system, actively restricting ourselves from pushing the boundaries of excellent research because we aren’t learning from the varied experiences of people from different backgrounds. Anyone can study physics and everyone has the right to receive equal access to it.

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

Don’t wait until you feel like you tick all the boxes to apply. If you’re considering applying, do it! It’s easy to imagine worst-case scenarios, but you won’t know how capable you are until you at least try! Lead open conversations with the host institution early and discuss your eligibility with their physics department as soon as possible to give yourself enough time to draft a solid application. Get advice from multiple individuals who have applied for a scholarship, grant or fellowship before to help you draft a useful dos and don’ts list – everyone has their own unique experience which can bring valuable information to the table and help you prepare.