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Karolina Szewczyk: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2023

Now aiming to make pioneering discoveries in the field of planet formation and their hybrid discs, which could help us understand Earth’s origins, Karolina has been able to continue pursuing her dreams in the UK thanks to this scholarship.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

My area of research is in astrophysics, specifically planet formation. I research this brief phase in the evolution of planetary systems, which revolves around the newly discovered type of planetary discs known as “hybrid discs”.

These are similar to our Solar System’s Kuiper belt, and are truly unique due to their composition – a combination of secondary origin dust and gas left over from an earlier evolutionary stage. They’re the missing link between the early stages of planet formation and the older planetary systems we observe around other stars.

Because of its gas content, it’s believed this evolutionary stage plays a crucial role in shaping planets and their atmospheres. Studying these hybrid discs can help us understand what physical conditions are needed to form systems similar to our own Solar System. It’s like having a chance to look back at our origins!

What drew you to this area of physics?

One of my earliest memories related to science is going with my parents to a photography exhibition of images taken by one of the Mars Exploration Rovers. In the small town I grew up in, it was a big event. I remember feeling immersed by them and trying to understand the vastness of the concept that is space, feeling as if my life was completely changed by that one experience.

Since then, physics has always been my favourite subject in school and I loved discovering how things work and behave. I always knew my future lay in the field of astrophysics. Unfortunately, the opportunities in this field are limited where I come from, so to further follow my dreams I had to move abroad.

While working towards my International Baccalaureate diploma I had an opportunity to undertake my first individual research project at the Astronomical Observatory of the Jagiellonian University in Poland. There, I studied the surface changes of a star in an eclipsing, contact binary star system.

Spending nights at the observatory, analysing my own data and talking to researchers there encouraged me to pursue astrophysics research as my future career. So, in 2019, I applied for the physics and astrophysics integrated master’s course at the University of Leeds. Thanks to the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund, that’s where I’ll be continuing my studies during my PhD research.

What is the potential impact of your work?

Exploring hybrid discs is like unveiling the secrets of other planetary systems and the history of physical processes that have happened in them. It can help to explain the origin and diversity of planetary systems, which is a fundamental question in astronomy. Given that only a few hybrid discs have been identified so far, any contributions to this field are truly meaningful and potentially ground-breaking. These findings can change our understanding of planetary systems and their evolution.

By studying this transitional stage and how these discs evolve into older planetary systems, we can better understand the mechanisms behind planet and atmosphere formation. It’s also crucial for understanding the origins of our own Solar System and, by extension, the origins of life on Earth. This study can provide insights into other exoplanetary systems and may even help identify potentially habitable zones and Earth-like planets beyond our own Solar System.

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

For many years I dreamed of becoming an astronomer, so pursuing a PhD is the natural next step to fulfil this. It was disheartening to learn that the research project I was so passionate about, which is also a continuation of my MPhys project work, didn’t come with funding. Unfortunately, finding similar research projects elsewhere also proved challenging. Finding an outside source of funding became my only option, and so it was my passion for this project that inspired me to apply for this scholarship.

“This study can provide insights into other exoplanetary systems and may even help identify potentially habitable zones and Earth-like planets beyond our own Solar System.”

Without this scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to take on this PhD project. The research group I’ll be part of is very supportive, and has already helped me be the best version of myself, ensuring the high quality of my research and work. I’m very much looking forward to doing my PhD project here, where I know I’ll thrive and make contributions to our understanding of planet formation.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

One of the most significant challenges I’ve faced so far is being a woman in the field of physics. Where I come from gender inequality in STEM subjects is present, which led me to make the decision to pursue my degree in the UK. The opportunities here are better – although there are gender inequality issues in the UK also.

Throughout my academic journey, I’ve been fortunate to encounter a few teachers who believed in me and motivated me to pursue my passion for physics – but not all teachers were so supportive. Despite the difficulties that I’ve dealt with in the past, I’ve always done my best and worked hard to now finally find myself in an environment where I feel appreciated.

The decision to move to a different country was scary at first, but I was fortunate to settle in Leeds – a city that’s welcomed me warmly and, in many ways, reminds me of home. Facing barriers and challenges is always easier with a supportive network of friends and family. I’m grateful to have people in my life who’ve welcomed me despite our various differences, and their support throughout my journey in physics has been immeasurable.

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

Overcoming barriers proves how strong you are as a person. Ultimately, when pursuing our dreams, we do it for ourselves, and it shouldn’t matter what others think. In my experience, I’ve discovered that physics can be an incredibly welcoming and supportive field. I hope that by encouraging people with a similar mindset to join this field we can only make physics safer and more inclusive. While the journey may be challenging at times, the joy I find in research and learning makes it all absolutely worth it.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Each person has their own set of experiences and knowledge that shape their individuality. I strongly believe diversity in physics is of utmost importance as these unique perspectives lead to new ideas, and ultimately to the best, unique solutions, which wouldn’t be possible to achieve otherwise. Diversity in physics is key for the new developments that drive scientific progress. It’s important to recognise that contributions to physics should not be determined by where you come from, but by your unique knowledge and experiences.

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

The best advice I can give is quite simple: do it. There is absolutely nothing to lose by applying, and the potential gains are immeasurable! Even if you feel like there’s no way you could win this scholarship, you might be pleasantly surprised. The most important thing is to follow your dreams and passions and never give up. This scholarship is here to help you achieve what otherwise might not be possible, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity.