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Rojita Buddhacharya: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2023

Rojita’s ground-breaking PhD project involves an international team of 100 astrophysicists and has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of planet formation, galaxy evolution and the early universe. 

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

I’ve always wondered why Earth is the only habitable planet with intelligent life. Why are other worlds are so different? What role does environment play in the formation and evolution of a star that shapes the destiny of its planets? My proposed PhD project with Dr Jonathan Henshaw and Professor Steve Longmore will allow to me explore these questions.

My project will look at why star formation behaves differently in the centre of our galaxy, known as the central molecular zone (CMZ). Current theories suggest that star formation rate is directly proportional to the gas density of the molecular cloud – but observations in the CMZ contradict this. By analysing new data sets from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the Karl Jansky Very Large Array, this project seeks to move beyond studying the isolated birth sites of stars.

The aim is to develop a comprehensive understanding of star-forming gas in the CMZ, leading to a holistic, multi-scale perspective of the entire star and planet formation environment. This research will shed light on the fundamental questions surrounding the uniqueness of Earth and the conditions necessary for the formation and evolution of stars and planets.

What drew you to this area of physics?

My whole life has been driven by this burning curiosity to find my mom. I lost her when I was barely two-and-a-half. I don't have any memories of her stored in my brain's hard drive. I don't even remember what she looks like.

I was born into a really poor and traditional family in Nepal. Unfortunately, because I was a girl, they wouldn't let me go to school. I was born as the fifth daughter when they were convinced they were going to have a boy. Then, to make matters worse, my mom passed away.

Because of that, I’ve faced bullying, harassment and discrimination throughout my life. People would always use my mother's death against me, and it hurt so much. But it also made me incredibly curious about her.

I used to bombard my grandpa with all these naive questions. He couldn't handle it, so he pointed at the moon and told me to go there if I really wanted to see her. It was his way of trying to get me to stop bothering him.

But that intense curiosity, that longing to find my mom, set me on a path I could never have imagined. It led me to astrophysics, to doing research internships at the Space Telescope Science Institute – and to conquering the summit of Mount Everest.

Now I’m delving into the fascinating world of exoplanets, star formation and the environments that shape the birth of stars and planets. I'm determined to keep searching, to keep pushing the boundaries of our understanding, all in the hopes of finding a piece of my mother's story and finally filling that void in my heart.

What is the potential impact of your work?

In the past decade, scientists have been working hard to unravel the mysteries surrounding star formation at the centre of our galaxy. The answer to this puzzle seems to lie in the interplay between the small-scale physics of star formation and the larger-scale dynamical processes that determine where and how many stars are born.

The previous observational approach, which focused on studying star birth sites in a fragmented and inconsistent manner, has its limitations. Current theories on star and planet formation are based on studying a handful of isolated molecular clouds, relying on limited parameters.

Enter my PhD project, which is truly ground-breaking. Using the remarkable data sets from telescopes like the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the Karl Jansky Very Large Array, we aim to overcome these limitations. This international team of around 100 astrophysicists is delving into a wide range of subjects, from star formation to black holes.

This project has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of star and planet formation, galaxy evolution and even the early universe as a whole.

"Despite the world telling me otherwise for most of my life, I know deep down that I'm good enough to be in this field. And now I have the scholarship to prove it!"

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

When I checked that email saying I'd been awarded the scholarship, I literally jumped out of bed and shouted!

Coming from a humble background and fighting all your life to reach your goals, getting that one chance to make your dreams come true is a really big deal. A PhD in astronomy and astrophysics has always been one of my dreams and being awarded this scholarship means I can do research while supporting my family financially. It's such a relief!

But what's even better is the validation. Despite the world telling me otherwise for most of my life, I know deep down that I'm good enough to be in this field. And now I have the scholarship to prove it! I feel truly honoured.

It's not just about me though – it's about breaking that misogyny and inspiring the new generation. I want to show them that anything is possible, regardless of your gender or background.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

Life has never been easy. I was born into a very poor and conservative family where I was denied the opportunity to attend school simply because I was a girl. But my two elder sisters fought against our parents and societal norms to change this. We had no option but to become the best students to secure scholarships and continue our education.

Later, I took on tutoring jobs for high school students and worked as a journalist to achieve some level of financial independence – all while studying full-time. Despite being academically gifted, I’ve always had to go above and beyond to prove my worth.

When I completed my Physics MSc at Tribhuvan University in 2017, I was the only female student specialising in astrophysics in my class. Faced with gender stereotypes, I had to show everyone around me that I had the skills and abilities to succeed. I did this by getting the highest marks in our physics department for my thesis.

I vividly remember an incident during my bachelor's when I was the only female student among 120. During a class on mathematical physics, the professor asked us to solve a problem. Despite solving it first, I had to raise my hand repeatedly before he believed that I had found the correct solution. The expression on his face when he checked my notebook and realised I was right remains etched in my memory.

My ambition to pursue a career in astronomy led me to pursue a Master's in Astronomy Research at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where I was fortunate to receive scholarships. I’m the first in my family to dare to apply for a full scholarship to study abroad and get higher education. Now, with the support of the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund, I’m just one step away from fulfilling my dream of embarking on a PhD.

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

Firstly, I salute your courage, resilience and unwavering determination. You are truly amazing and an inspiration to the next generation. Remember, dreams don't come with a price tag. They require consistent effort, strong willpower, a support system and, most importantly, you. Let's create a safe and supportive environment where we can all thrive. Together, we can break down barriers, overcome obstacles, and empower each other to pursue our dreams in physics and beyond.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Diversity is crucial in physics to dismantle barriers and create a transformative impact. The underrepresentation of women in physics is not due to lack of talent, but rather systemic obstacles they face from early education to the workplace. Limited support systems, lack of role models and biased attitudes discourage women from pursuing physics.

To foster inclusivity, we need opportunities, spaces and encouragement for women to use their abilities. I personally experienced the effects of a male-dominated environment, but meeting inspiring scientists and their belief in my talent changed my trajectory. Physics must embrace diversity, break stereotypes and make everyone feel valued and included.

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

If you’re thinking of applying, you’ve probably already been through a lot and fought through all those daily life battles as a warrior. I admire you and salute you for your perseverance. Please don’t doubt yourself, just give it a try and give physics an opportunity to have more amazing, beautiful minds in this field.

I’d recommend talking to previous or current BBGSF awardees, your university social committee and supervisors about your research project and the application process. I’d also suggest you let someone else – a friend or previous supervisor – go through your application before submitting it. Everything else will happen naturally. You should definitely go for it!