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Lauren Muir: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2023

Researching the ways in which physics is taught, Lauren is immersed in crucial work around students’ identity that will ultimately make the subject more accessible for all regardless of background.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

My work is in Physics Education Research (PER), which can be summarised as research into the ways we understand and teach physics. This spans lots of different areas, such as curriculum design, student engagement and much more. By taking a physicist’s approach to these topics we can use our deep subject knowledge and problem-solving skills to make physics a more accessible subject for everyone.

In my PhD I’ll be looking into the concept of “physics identity”, which is the degree to which someone considers themselves to be a physicist. My research will focus on how these identities are developed in undergraduate classrooms, particularly through working collaboratively and the influence of community and connection.

The impacts of a strong physics identity are profound, especially for students from minority groups who may struggle to feel a sense of belonging in the field, making this topic incredibly close to my heart.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I’ve been interested in physics and the study of the world around us for as long as I can remember! I absolutely loved science as a child and that passion only grew as I continued my studies. I’m very lucky to have had a loving, supportive family and a wonderful physics teacher, who all supported me in my decision to go to university – despite my concerns that I wasn’t going to be successful.

It was at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that I became particularly fascinated by how we teach and learn physics. As our universities transitioned entirely to remote learning, I was acutely aware of how my peers were impacted – both positively and negatively – and I began wondering how it might be possible to better support students through the practice of education.

I was incredibly lucky to attend a university with an active PER interest group and after taking the step to reach out to them, I’ve had the chance to work on multiple projects that have improved the experiences of my fellow students. Everyone in the group has been so supportive and, after experiencing often crippling imposter syndrome for years, it finally feels likely I belong in the company of these fantastic physicists.

Having the chance now to complete my own research is nothing short of a dream come true!

What is the potential impact of your work?

There are many positive impacts of supporting students to build stronger physics identities, but to me the most important benefit is students feeling a stronger sense of belonging, which can be a massive struggle for those who don’t fit the stereotypical “physicist” mould. If we want to promote a diversity of perspectives in physics then we need to ensure those voices are being actively supported and encouraged to continue sharing their work.

What’s more, those with stronger physics identities are more likely to stay in the field, which benefits research and industry across the board. Most generally, I hope that my work will support the physicists of tomorrow and encourage even more people to study physics.

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

When I heard I’d received the scholarship I was absolutely ecstatic!

PER as a research area is unfortunately not covered by any research council in the UK, so I could only have considered a PhD in this field by receiving external funding. I’ve known for many years that I wanted to do a PhD as I absolutely love research, and it feels incredible that I can pursue further study in a field that I have so much passion for. The work I’ll be doing directly ties in with the goals of the scholarship, so the prospect of being an ambassador for the fund is very exciting.

“The most important benefit of my work is students feeling a stronger sense of belonging, which can be a massive struggle for those who don’t fit the stereotypical ‘physicist’ mould.”

Finally, as I’ve been financially independent for several years now, and having had to work part-time all the way through my degree, receiving the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund takes a massive weight off. It’s a huge relief to know that I’ll be able to focus exclusively on my studies.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

As a woman in a male-dominated field, I’ve experienced multiple instances of being told that I didn’t belong in physics from as early as high school. I was often laughed at for expressing my opinions, told that I talked too much, repeatedly spoken over in group discussions – and even had insults shouted at me across the classroom for participating in discussions. Despite having quite a thick skin, it was incredibly difficult for me not to internalise these comments and feel as if maybe I wasn’t good enough.

These fears were compounded by being the first in my immediate family to go to university. Despite them all being incredibly supportive of my choice, it was quite isolating to go through the process of applying and studying on my own. I didn’t have the advantage of knowing someone who had “done it all before”.

By finding a community of fellow students and academic staff that I could lean on for support, I was able to tackle my imposter syndrome and regain the courage to pursue a PhD, and feel like I deserved to do so.

The sense of community was absolutely crucial to my success as a student, which is why I’m so excited to conduct research into the role of connection with others into physics identity. The positive experiences I’ve had in my undergraduate years should not be a privilege, and I truly hope my work will help students to find their communities and become better physicists as a result.

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

My best piece of advice would be to reach out to as many people as you can! There are so many people out there who are excited about what you have to say and are willing to support you in pursuit of your goals – and they might only be an email away. It can be nerve-racking to take that first step to put yourself out there, but it’s almost always worth it. The biggest lesson I’ve learned through my undergraduate studies is that you never need to go through anything alone.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

The overall pursuit of physics is to better understand the world around us and this is simply not possible without considering the ideas from a diversity of perspectives. If we only include certain groups of people in the conversation, we achieve nothing but limiting humanity’s progress! By actively promoting diversity and amplifying voices from underrepresented groups, we create opportunities for connection, understanding and empathy for others’ experiences – which makes us far better scientists.

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

If you’re even remotely considering applying for the fund, I’d tell you to just go for it! I spent a significant amount of time worrying about whether or not my ideas were good enough or my application was strong enough, but in the end I’m so glad I applied.

I’d also advise prospective applicants to reach out to potential supervisors as early as you can, to discuss how the PhD project can be designed to best suit your needs as a candidate. I’m eternally grateful to my supervisor for his support all the way through the application process.