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Abbie Chadwick: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2022

Thanks to the support of family and teachers, along with her own peerless determination, Abbie is overcoming ill-health and doing important work at CERN.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

I work in two areas within the Large Hadron Collider beauty (LHCb) experiment at CERN. My analysis side aims to understand the weak mixing angle discrepancy within the standard model. This is particularly interesting because the discrepancy between the two most precise measurements is quite large (3.2 sigma) and so understanding it will help probe the standard model.

The second half of my work involves the commissioning of the VELO upgrade in the experiment. VELO is the innermost tracking system of LHCb and so crucial for data taking. It had been completely upgraded during the current long shutdown and a large part of the process is testing the detector to check its operations. I'm working on creating some of those tests and the user interface panels that house them.

Physicist Abbie Chadwick at CERN wearing a hard hat

What drew you to this area of physics?

I was drawn to physics because of how abstract it felt to me – it involved looking at minute details in everything from the smallest of particles all the way to the mechanics of daily life.

As a small child I was always interested in what everything was made of and was never satisfied with the answer. I always wanted to go down to the next level of what was inside or why something was the way it was. It was an itch that would only really be scratched in my mid-to-late teens when I started learning about particle physics and Newtonian dynamics.

As an undergraduate I found that as I learnt about new areas of physics, I liked more and more of them and I struggled to pick just one! In 2018, for a summer project, I worked on analysis-based particle physics with LHCb and then shortly after I began my master’s project with A Large Ion Collider Experiment (ALICE) at the hadron collider, a heavy-ion experiment focusing on their inner tracker upgrade and module quality assurance.

Those projects helped guide my PhD decisions, as I realised how much I valued both analysis and more hands-on elements. Ultimately, I love getting to work on the detector while also using its data.

An exciting moment for me was just before Christmas in 2021 when I got to go to the underground cavern that holds the ALICE detector. It was the first time I saw in person where the modules that I worked on for my masters were inside the experiment.

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

Winning the scholarship means so much to me. It enables me to not only finish my PhD via an extension but to do it without extra financial pressures during that period.

I feel immensely lucky to have been awarded the top-up scholarship because I know I’m not alone in facing hardships during PhD studies. Now that I know I’m receiving help, I already feel less stressed about the end of my funding period, and it means I can focus on my work.

My PhD is something I’ve always wanted to do and believe I can do, despite the barriers I’ve faced, and continue to face. Receiving the fund is helping me to achieve that goal on both a practical level but also an emotional one. Knowing the panel believed in me enough to grant a scholarship is something that I will never stop being grateful for.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

I struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia for most of my school life, only being diagnosed in my early teens. It’s something I still have to manage but over the years have learnt about ways that can help. I often find myself explaining that just because I have ways to help, both internal and external, it doesn’t mean it’s disappeared. I have to work hard to make it appear that way.

I’ve struggled with health in general during my studies, but unfortunately I’ve had a few extra issues during my PhD. It’s meant that my PhD has been more of a challenge than it should have been. Receiving the extension helps regain some of the time I lost due to illness, putting me on a level footing with other students.

I remember during my school years having some uphill battles when I was feeling particularly discouraged. Throughout my education it took me longer to understand and remember topics due to many different aspects of dyslexia, especially when it wasn’t yet diagnosed.

I was more of a slow-burn student who needed time to truly understand and that involved a lot more practice and revision. By the end of the year my marks would be okay but I had to develop a lot of self-belief to advocate for myself in those instances.

“For anyone struggling with not feeling like you belong because of where you’re from or because you have disabilities, you very much do belong!”

I was lucky to have a couple of teachers who went above and beyond and were a great support system, especially when I wasn’t feeling very confident. They were what ultimately led to me going on to study physics at undergraduate level, despite setbacks.

I’m also lucky to have a family that always encouraged me to do whatever I loved and told me that trying my best was all that mattered. It removed the pressure of achieving the end goal and instead focused on making sure I was enjoying the journey too.

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 don’t let anyone else’s words affect your will to achieve. If someone says that you shouldn’t or can’t study physics, and you would like to, it doesn’t mean you should stop. We’re lucky enough to be able to decide our futures and someone else’s words shouldn’t have a bearing on that. You can achieve despite them, not because of them!

I think that should go for any internal voices too. I know I’ve struggled with not thinking I can achieve due to my medical conditions.

For anyone struggling with not feeling like you belong because of where you’re from or because you have medical conditions or disabilities, you very much do! You can achieve just as much as anyone else – it might be a different journey or a more difficult one, but you can get to the same place. It’s the hardest thing to do, but try not to compare yourself to others.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Diversity in physics is important because everyone is unique and that’s shaped by every aspect of their life. Not only does the variation benefit the environment that you work in, but having representation within physics helps others that are progressing to see that they can do physics too.

That’s why it’s important to have representation at every level and in each situation, not just at undergraduate level.

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

Go for it! I helped out with the fund in 2018 and it took me until 2022 to apply myself. I shouldn’t have waited that long, but I actually think the fund has come to me at the perfect time in the form of the top-up scholarships.

The process isn’t scary and every step of the way it’s made clear that you can ask whatever questions you have. I think many people don’t have this problem, but if you’re the same as me, have some self-belief!