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Aishwarya Chanady Babu: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2022

This awardee refused to follow the traditional path unfairly set out for her – and now she has the inspirational aim of saving people’s vision.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

I’m going to do my PhD in advanced optical imaging at University College Dublin’s School of Physics. The main objective of my project will be designing a two-photon imaging system using spatial light modulators to learn more about the structural biomechanics of collagen fibrils in the eye that can become altered by glaucoma and intraocular pressure.

The ultimate goal of this project is to prevent irreversible vision loss, which I think would be an incredible achievement. My research will not only help scientific advances in this area but also has the potential to change people’s lives.

This is the most inspiring and exciting aspect of the project, and it defines the kind of work I hope to accomplish as a doctoral candidate. Being a photonics student, I always wanted to excel in the field of optics and biophotonics and utilise my skills in a challenging and creative environment.

Female physicist Aishwarya Chanady Babu smiling and reading a book

What drew you to this area of physics?

From a young age, I was good at both physics and mathematics, but I also loved biology. As a child, I somehow thought that I had to become a doctor, so I applied to medical college after high school. But despite getting a high score in the entrance test, in the end I was unable to join due to financial constraints.

There is a saying that if one door closes, another will open, and enrolling onto a photonics programme turned out to be the best decision I’ve taken in my life. After taking photonics as my major, I realised that I’d found what I’m good at and what I love.

During the second year, I got a great opportunity to work on an optical coherence tomography project. This led me to biophotonics, the study of optical processes in biological systems. It was very exciting and new for me because I didn’t know that I could combine physics and biology.

This project gave me a well-rounded skillset and helped me to realise that this was the field where I should start my research career. So, I began my quest for similar research and took every opportunity I came across, which helped me to flourish.

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

Winning this scholarship is a dream come true for me. Now I can say that I am going to achieve my childhood dream of adding “Dr” in front of my name. Even though I had the desire and ability to pursue a PhD, it wasn’t easy to get there. There were many barriers, both social and economic, that I had to face to come to this point.

This scholarship helped me to overcome the financial constraints which were a big problem for me. Achieving this scholarship validates all the hard work and challenges I faced. Apart from financial support, the networking from such a successful programme is also going to have a huge impact on me both as a person and as a researcher.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

I hail from a humble nuclear family in India with a disadvantaged background. A young woman like me, especially from a socially and economically challenging environment, must face numerous obstacles to achieve something great in life.

When I said I wanted to become a scientist, the patriarchal society around me discouraged me. They said that science is not meant for girls, they are not that intelligent – blah, blah, blah.

Women in my community are still denied higher education for being female. Women are supposed to get married early and their only concern should be to take care of their family. In my home, my mother and even my sister got married in their early twenties and were forced to leave behind their dreams in order to build their own families.

Being the first person to achieve post-graduation in my community, my mother and sister turned a blind eye to the naysayers and encouraged me to achieve my goals. My family always supported me to accomplish my dreams, but it has been tough to provide me with financial backing.

“You should never, ever give up on your dreams. You may have to face a lot of problems, but try to overcome them.”

Until my higher secondary education, I was enrolled in a government educational institution where they find talented students from rural areas and provide them with high-quality free education, irrespective of their families’ socio-economic situation.

During college, e-grants were enough to cover my academic tuition fees but not enough to cover living expenses. My father, as a self-employed person and sole breadwinner of my family, was unable to provide sufficient allowance, so I started to do part-time work.

It was very hard in the beginning to focus on studies, complementary skills and work, but I gradually got used to it. Despite the hardships, I was able to score good grades.

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

The desire to achieve my goal propelled me through all adversities. I would say that you should never, ever give up on your dreams. You may have to face a lot of problems, but try to overcome them. I know it's not as easy as it sounds, but I never stopped trying until I got a good result. I think this is an important quality for a physics student. Believe in yourself and follow your heart. You can definitely find the path towards success.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

I still think there is a lack of diversity in physics. In most places, fewer girls than boys study physics. It is not only an issue of inequality, it also affects the physics we do and the systems we create.

For me, physics is about finding solutions for many unknown things. If there are lots of opinions on a single problem, the accuracy of the answer increases. The point of view of people changes according to their gender, their situation, the place from where they came, etc.. So, for better advancement, diversity in physics is very important.

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

By focusing on the student’s background, the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund stands apart from all other scholarships that only consider students who excel in their work.

So this is a great opportunity for all those in need of financial support for securing a PhD position in physics. The application process is not that difficult, so just apply for it and hope for good results!