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Raymond Isichei: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2023

For his PhD project, Raymond will study global modifications of general relativity and try to answer the question: why are other galaxies accelerating away from ours at an ever-increasing rate? 

Tell us about your work – and what drives you 

The central goal of my PhD is the study of global modifications of general relativity. General relativity is a theory of gravitation famously discovered by Albert Einstein. In this theory, gravitation is due to the bending of spacetime by matter.  

From everyday experiences, we know that gravity is an attractive force. We can consider the universe as a system consisting of various solar systems and galaxies. Despite gravity being an attractive force, we observe that other galaxies are accelerating away from ours. Not only that, but the rate at which they’re accelerating away is increasing!  

In general relativity, the repulsive force which causes the accelerated expansion of the universe is attributed to the cosmological constant. In our universe, this constant is small and positive. Global modifications of general relativity are modifications where the cosmological constant is promoted from an arbitrary constant of nature to a field – but these theories are constructed such that their equations of motion are identical to the Einstein field equations of general relativity with the regular cosmological constant. 

By studying these theories, we’re trying to understand why the vacuum energy predicted by quantum field theory is so much larger than the measured cosmological constant which is the gravitational vacuum energy.  

I find this fascinating and tremendously motivating. The two frameworks which govern the universe at the smallest and largest scales seem to be conceptually irreconcilable – when they should exist harmoniously. Any working solution will need to marry ideas from both quantum field theory and general relativity. I’m incredibly excited to be part of this effort! 

What drew you to this area of Physics? 

Unlike most students, I started doing physics quite late. I began in a general science programme and took courses in maths, chemistry and biology. I then spent two years specialising in chemistry while slowly coming to terms with not being suited for experimental science. Despite not taking physics in secondary school or at university, I was fascinated by the process of understanding nature using physical principles, with maths as a tool. 

Perhaps the most famous example of this process is the idea of general relativity. When I first studied it, I was amazed that a theory with such minimal assumptions could have such wide-ranging implications. During my MSc year I took more advanced general relativity-based courses in black holes and cosmology. The fact that this framework can be used to understand these two completely different systems cemented my appreciation for the subject. 

General relativity is widely applicable, and yet it can’t be the final answer because there are still things that don’t quite add up. For example, when we consider matter we have problems with the cosmological constant and the nature of dark matter. The fact that these problems are all well-defined yet have eluded a solution makes this a very interesting time to do relativity research.  

What is the potential impact of your work? 

The nuances of the relationship between the cosmological constant, dark energy in cosmology and vacuum energy are still poorly understood, but it’s widely believed that most of the energy in the observable universe must be dark energy. If the cosmological constant is responsible for this dark energy, then understanding the cosmological constant may open the door to understanding the majority of energetic processes in the universe.  

Likewise, if the cosmological constant is responsible for dark energy, then steps towards the resolution of the cosmological constant problem may help us understand why dark energy behaves the way it does. This would have massive implications for cosmological and astrophysical models and change our understanding of the universe. 

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

I feel incredibly grateful to have been awarded this scholarship. The opportunity to do a PhD – which I simply couldn’t otherwise have taken on – means more than just the opportunity to do research.  

Throughout my time as a student, I was often discouraged by the lack of minorities, as none of my professors, teaching assistants or peers looked like me. The reason was clear. In ethnic minority families, the emphasis is often placed on degrees that enable upward financial and social mobility – whereas academic research is an enterprise where the financial risks generally outweigh the rewards. 

Doing a PhD also represents the ability to be the person that younger students from underrepresented groups may look to for support and, more importantly, inspiration. Hopefully seeing another ethnic minority engaged in theoretical physics research at the highest levels will encourage younger students to take the risk. 

What challenges have you faced to get to this point? 

I’ve faced a variety of challenges, but I consider myself an example of how, given the right assistance, ethnic minorities from working-class backgrounds can achieve excellence. If assistance or opportunity is not available, then the already adverse circumstances can make it nearly impossible. 

This was evident during my MSc course at Imperial College London. To pursue my interests without placing any further strain on my family, I paid for the tuition fees using a student loan. Living close to campus was a luxury I couldn’t afford, so I had to live outside London and commute for over three hours every day. To pay for my living expenses, I worked 20 hours a week in addition to the full-time MSc course.  

This was difficult. It meant I couldn’t achieve the same depth of learning as others purely because of my financial circumstances. It severely affected my ability to succeed in the exams.  

After the exams, I decided to focus fully on my dissertation. To do this I took out another loan. While it wasn’t ideal, it allowed me to fully immerse myself in research. As a result, I was awarded the prize for best thesis across all the physics master’s programmes. This wouldn’t have been possible without additional financial support. 

"People feel tremendous pressure to publicly announce accomplishments while keeping struggles and failures private, so when you’re experiencing difficulty, it feels like everyone else is doing better than you."

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

My main piece of advice is to avoid comparison. When experiencing difficulty, the easiest thing to do is compare yourself with other people who seem to be doing better than you. Nowadays people feel tremendous pressure to publicly announce accomplishments while keeping struggles and failures private, so when you’re experiencing difficulty, it feels like everyone else is doing better than you.  

This sense of frustration can be tempered by remembering that everyone is going through their own struggles, even the people with consistent top-of-class grades. What’s more, as a member of an under-represented group in academia, you have your own unique struggles and obstacles to navigate. The fact that you’re thinking of applying for a PhD scholarship means there are so many obstacles that you’ve already overcome as an undergraduate.   

Not comparing yourself to others and remembering how much you’ve achieved already will give you the courage to pursue your dreams. 

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important? 

I believe increased diversity in Physics is a noble goal that we should aspire to. The process of scientific enquiry and discovery is one that benefits all of humanity. If all of humanity benefits then the process does not belong to one person. The development of physics and maths from the foundations of algebra and Euclidean geometry to general relativity is a story that spans various continents and cultural contexts – and yet historically progress has largely been seen as a triumph of Western societies. 

Due to the current political climate in various Western nations, there has been a resurgence in once-fringe theories of scientific racism. Proponents point to this view of history, as well as the continued under-representation of minority groups, as evidence of intellectual inferiority.  

These conclusions are usually drawn without accounting for the additional obstacles minority groups face which affect academic performance and aspiration. They also ignore how students from minority groups succeed once they receive assistance. I believe the best way to combat the onset of this ideology is to increase visible diversity in academia. This requires helping minorities with the obstacles they face – which are largely invisible to wider academic society. 

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

You may consider yourself an unconventional candidate – for this fund as well as other scholarships. You may consider yourself less capable of research than your peers who fit the traditional description of physicists.  

The truth is that this impostor syndrome couldn’t be more unwarranted! You’ve been able to get through an undergraduate and master’s programme and learn all the skills expected of you. More importantly, you were able to do so while facing additional challenges unique to your circumstances. 

This aspect of your application may not be valued by the usual grant awarding bodies, but I can assure you that your sense of determination and perseverance are tremendously valued by everyone at the fund. These traits are central to the success of a research career in physics.