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Stephen Donegan: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2022

Despite facing numerous barriers, Stephen was nonetheless determined to pursue his study of physics. Now he'll be working with algae models for sustainable energy management, with a PhD at Newcastle University.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you 

I’m going to be working with algae models for photobioreactors. Algae are cool, they eat carbon dioxide and make it into lipids. These are fats that can be refined into oil, usable in engines. Energy management is the most pressing human concern, so I’m very excited to be working with this technology as there will always be a need for sustainable off-site energy in applications such as humanitarian relief, field hospitals and transport. 

In addition to the environmental impact of my research, I’ll be working with the Navier-Stokes equations. These describe every fluid system, plasmas, rivers, algae in photobioreactors… the list goes on. Through working with these equations, benefits will be made in other areas of science, for example in thermodynamics and the science of blood flow. My research will support the development of maths and science in wider applications. 

Stephen Donegan: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2022

What drew you to this area of physics?  

I’m a mature student and gained my place at York through a foundation year. I wanted to study maths and physics as technical jobs require an excellent education, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my studies or where it might lead. In my first year I took philosophy electives, as I have experience of writing and processing information and I’m interested in the project of science. As my course evolved, I’ve been drawn to plasma studies, known as the “fifth state of matter”, basically a soup of electrons and protons sensitive to electromagnetic fields. Studying plasma has brought together all my undergraduate studies, and I’ve used flow equations, derived from Navier-Stokes. 

I enjoy calculating, building models, and experimenting. I suppose the science of flow is important to me, as change is the only constant in the universe. When I look back at my time at York, there have been moments of flow, where I’ve been working on calculations, or different projects, and this is why I love physics so much.  

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

This scholarship means the world to me. I’m humbled to be part of the team and I will be working hard to achieve an excellent outcome. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet. I’m guessing that will happen when I find my office in Newcastle and start working!   

This scholarship will enable me to develop my career while supporting my son. It’ll make a considerable difference to our lives. I’ll be able to continue my studies, developing my mastery of maths and physics, and learning new techniques that apply my knowledge to engineering solutions, supporting the environment. My son will be able to enjoy the stability we’ve sustained throughout my studies at York. 

Without the fund, it would not be possible for me to use my studies from York to their full advantage. I’ve worked tirelessly to achieve my integrated masters and I’m overjoyed that I’ll be able to apply this to a PhD, which I hope will lead into academia, where I can support others to achieve similar excellent outcomes.   

Taking on a PhD, is immensely exciting, a step towards a fulfilling career, and a route to promoting diversity in science. Working with the IOP is fantastic, I love sharing my “Einfühlung” [intellectual love of maths and physics] with the public, students and other researchers. I’m keen to develop my work with the IOP and enthuse others to discover their own path. 

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?  

Barriers to education are manyfold, finance being the most pressing. My family circumstances have made studying more problematic than for many of my peers. I’ve had to move exams, submit work early or late, depending on the school holidays, which have little correlation with uni holidays. Fortunately, my son knows the importance of achieving your goals. I’m so pleased he’s picked up my habits of working hard and applying yourself fully to the task at hand. 

Stephen Donegan: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2022

Discouragement is easy to find – the immense workload, the lack of finances, the constant redoubling of my efforts to work harder, and to top it all, finding a quiet spot to work at times seems impossible! Through my studies I’ve learnt to embrace problems and I now consider them as growing opportunities. If I stick with what I thought I could do, in my own self-imposed boundaries, I wouldn’t be studying. My growth through these opportunities has enabled me to develop into a capable, professional academic.

There are many challenges to studying, not least the workload of a physics degree. Maintaining a family home, working when possible and of course ensuring the housework is done is a never-ending task, topped with physics assignments and exams, the challenges of gaining a degree are sometimes overwhelming. Taking time to digest the work I’ve done has been one of the shortcomings of my course, which is also true of the whole university experience.  

I feel fortunate that I’ve had excellent support, my supervisor is amazing, and we’ve produced brilliant work together that has supported the department and other disabled students. I’ve given everything and more to overcome these challenges and uni has more than met me halfway. I’m overjoyed to be enjoying success. 

"Without diversity in physics, we’d be doomed to tread the same predictable path, invention would be stifled, debates would be pointless! It’s enjoyable to consider different ways of working, and of contemplating concepts."

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

My barriers were self-imposed, call it under-confidence, lack of assertiveness or whatever. Studying is hard, so it’s natural that anyone would struggle. My foundation year tutor taught me maths and physics, but also some physics survival skills. I’ve learnt that you don’t have to be an expert in every area of physics.  

Yes, physics can be hard, but I believe everyone can complete a degree and change their self-imposed boundaries, revealing a capacity to achieve, to do more than you thought possible and to realise your dreams. 

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?  

Physics is the study of everything, therefore it involves everyone. There is no a-typical scientist or physicist, just people advancing the subject, supporting others to do the same. At York, I’ve supported our in-house consultancy, giving advice to students about their work and helping them complete calculations. What’s amazed me more than anything is the diversity in approaches to problems. 

Without diversity in physics, we’d be doomed to tread the same predictable path, invention would be stifled, debates would be pointless! It’s enjoyable to consider different ways of working, and of contemplating concepts. This is the real business of physics, and as seen in thermodynamics, different approaches develop science in ways that only diverse thinking from diverse people can imagine. 

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

Stop thinking about it and do it!  

Throughout your degree, whether you notice or not, you’re turning into a capable, professional, hard-working, reliable member of the team. Whatever opportunities are available to you, academia needs your drive and ambition to develop a broad and nourishing environment for research and education. 

Jocelyn is an inspirational figure, her contribution to science and her contribution to the lives of successive cohorts of researchers is changing the face of physics.