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Alix Freckelton: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2023

Astrophysicist Alix has fought hard against negative attitudes towards females in physics and ‘imposter syndrome’. She is researching solar-type stars and any potential Earth twins near them – work that could ultimately discover if we’re alone in the universe.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

I currently work on determining the properties of stars that could be hosts to planets outside our solar system – we call these exoplanets. My main focus is stars that exhibit similar properties to our sun, as these will be our best targets around which to search for an Earth twin.

I use data from various spectrographs around the world for my work. From these instruments we receive spectra of our target stars – these are essentially rainbows that can tell us more about what the star’s like. We can tell what elements are present in a star’s atmosphere because each element absorbs light at different wavelengths – these correspond to dark lines in our spectrum rainbow. The width of these lines tells us a lot about the conditions of a stellar atmosphere. For example, under greater pressure, the line of a particular element will be broader.

Knowing more about the stars surrounding us gives us clues as to where we should be looking for exoplanets, as well as making planet classification more accurate.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I’ve always found space fascinating – this began when I was younger and watched Star Trek with my mum. It wasn’t until I started my A-levels that I began to seriously consider a career that involved astrophysics, coming hand-in-hand with the realisation that, although not from a starship, there are plenty of ways for us to explore and investigate the universe around us.

Applying for an astrophysics degree was never something I’d pictured myself doing, but I was inspired and convinced to do so by both my parents and my A-level teachers who recognised my potential and believed in my abilities. Being accepted into the University of Birmingham was quite possibly one of the best surprises of my life.

Throughout university, and especially through the projects I’ve completed as part of my undergraduate course, I developed a real love of problem solving and applying the techniques I learned to astrophysical research. Spending a summer after my third year working under Georgina Dransfield and Amaury Triaud absolutely set my heart on the field of exoplanets.

During my master’s project, I created a pipeline in Python that can quickly and reliably determine the properties of a star from its spectrum. I’m now using and further developing this pipeline as part of my PhD to classify solar-type stars as part of the gr8stars and BEBOP projects.

What is the potential impact of your work?

Most people will have an opinion on whether or not we’re alone in the universe – whether that’s a highly intelligent society or microscopic life on moons – but the only life we truly know of is right here on Earth.

The most logical place to look for whatever alien life may be out there is on a planet just like ours – around a star just like ours. This isn’t as easy as it may sound. Small planets like Earth around solar-type stars are easily lost in the signals produced by the star.

If we were some distant alien civilisation observing the solar system with technology at the level it is now, we wouldn’t be able to detect Earth. However, work to increase the precision of our spectrographs and enhance our ability to remove the signals that obscure small planets is rapidly improving our capabilities.

With my research, I hope to not only contribute to these improvements, but also provide a robust target list of solar-type stars suitable for searching for Earth-like planets, using experiments such as the Terra Hunting Experiment (THE).

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

I’m incredibly grateful to receive the support of the fund – it still feels a bit surreal. Financial stress is a huge barrier that can quickly diminish any other aspect of life. Having this removed is a massive weight off my shoulders.

Beginning my PhD I was incredibly worried that I’d have to spend the majority of my time working from home due to the cost of commuting. The support from the fund allows me the freedom to be able to come into the office as often as I please, just like my peers. This is incredibly important to me. Not only will this allow me to be present for more outreach opportunities and talks, but also being in the office is a wonderfully supportive atmosphere. Being at home can quickly lead to imposter syndrome creeping in – especially being sat for hours on end trying to solve a problem that should really be quite simple.

The group I work in is full of friendly, intelligent and inspirational people that are always happy to help out with problems. It’s an environment which instils confidence and is invaluable to helping me conduct my research. Receiving the scholarship truly means that I can have the best possible experience during my PhD.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

I’d say that, day-to-day, the challenges that have had the most impact on me are those faced by most women, all the time. Being talked down to, underestimated and ignored for simply being female has happened to me and most of my female friends and colleagues – but I was incredibly lucky to have unbelievably supportive parents who pushed me to believe in myself and, quite frankly, prove people wrong. They taught me to work hard and challenge myself, and this is something I strive to do every single day.

Additionally, the support of my teachers during sixth form gave me the confidence I needed to apply for university.

“Imposter syndrome is at its worst when you can’t see anyone like yourself in a room. More diversity in physics will help ease this for many people.”

Growing up, I didn’t have the academic advantages that many people received, such as private education, tutoring, and technology. As a result, I experienced severe imposter syndrome when I started university, and realised that many of my peers had had a very different experience of education. I’m still overcoming this, but one of the most helpful things is working in a group with brilliantly inspirational people, where I’m never made to feel overlooked or unworthy of my position.

I’m fortunate to have a supervisor who is a huge inspiration to me. She’s taught me a massive amount so far about not only our research, but also how to navigate working as a woman in a male-dominated field. The guidance and mentorship of my supervisor has equipped me with the skills and resilience to face the upcoming challenges in my PhD with confidence.

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

Working in physics is an incredibly rewarding career. It takes hard work and a huge amount of determination, but you can do it! Remember to take the time to look at how far you’ve come. Have faith in yourself and listen to how you feel. It’s important to pick who you take advice from – those discouraging you are not going to be helpful to you. Listening to those supporting and encouraging me and trying my best to disregard people doing the opposite has been crucial to achieving my goals in physics.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Diversity is important in all aspects of life – it’s vital for physics to truly reflect the world. Having a relatable role model is so incredibly key to being inspired to pursue something. Especially when you’re young, it’s really important to see people from your background proving that your dream can be achieved. The more diverse physics becomes, the more people will be inspired and encouraged to be physicists. Imposter syndrome is at its worst when you can’t see anyone like yourself in a room. More diversity in physics will help ease this for many people.

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

Absolutely do it! The process of applying makes you realise just how hard you’ve worked to get to where you are. Even if your application is unsuccessful, the reflection process it provides is truly valuable.