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Xinran Yang: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2023

Xinran’s pioneering research into the sources of methane emissions will broaden our understanding of the second greatest contributor to climate change – and could help the UK to achieve its methane reduction goals by 2030.

Xinran Yang, Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2023

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

Emissions of greenhouse gas methane are the second most important cause of climate change – and yet there is still much we don’t know about the sources of methane.

For example, radiocarbon is produced naturally in the atmosphere, but it isn’t present in fossil fuels because they’ve been stored for millions of years – much longer than the half-life for radiocarbon decay – so methane emissions from fuels such as natural gas don’t include any radiocarbon. In contrast, methane emissions from biogenic sources such as cows, landfills and natural wetlands do contain radiocarbon. My work measures the radiocarbon in atmospheric methane to estimate methane emitted from both fossil fuel and biogenic sources.

I’m really excited to figure out the methane sources and conduct field and lab work to get my hands on greenhouse gas samples. My research offers an essential understanding of methane sources which will aid greenhouse gas reduction policies and ultimately help to mitigate climate change.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I travelled a lot as a child, which allowed me to spend time with volcanoes, forests, mountains and oceans – the great wonders of the Earth. I’ve always felt profoundly connected to the Earth, driving me to seek a deeper understanding of the natural world. My curiosity led me into physics, which gave me a whole new perspective on the natural structures and phenomena around me.

My interest in the atmosphere began in an environmental physics lecture during my undergraduate study, when the lecturer demonstrated the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere, land and ocean. It was fascinating to see how fluxes from various storage reservoirs interact to maintain the Earth's ability to sustain life. Since then, I’ve focused my master's thesis on understanding the different influences on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These experiences have expanded my passion for atmospheric physics and now I’m eager to investigate greenhouse gases at a postgraduate doctoral level.

What is the potential impact of your work?

My work will contribute to the understanding of methane emission sources, which are still under debate. A better understanding of greenhouse gas methane will help establish reduction policies and achieve the UK methane reduction goal in 2030. Understanding greenhouse gas sources means that the policies could be focused to specific industrial sectors and mitigate global warming more efficiently. My project will also develop new techniques for methane emission estimations, which will benefit further studies in greenhouse gas and climate science.

By better understanding the origins of methane emissions connected with fossil fuel production and consumption, we may steer future innovation towards renewable energy options. Agriculture also contributes significantly to methane emissions, mainly from livestock and the cultivation of rice. Understanding the fundamental sources of methane emissions can inspire new approaches to agricultural practises and livestock management.

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

It feels a bit unreal that I really won the scholarship! I’m so happy that I can do my PhD on methane tracing – it really is my dream project.

I’m extremely grateful to the IOP and my supervisor, who has supported me during my application. My academic performance was significantly impacted because of mental health issues I had during the Covid lockdown, so for other scholarships, where grades take priority, I’m at a disadvantage. Thankfully, the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund is different – I couldn’t take on a PhD without this financial support.

Aside from my PhD, I’m interested in women’s rights and have a few self-researched publications in gender studies. Being an ambassador for the scholarship means I can do more to support women in physics, encourage more young women to pursue physics and make a difference in empowering women and minority students in physics.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

I was born in China where girls are discouraged from pursuing a career in physics. Girls are pushed into non-STEM professions and marriage so that the technologies, power and wealth are all governed by men. When I was 10 I became very interested in aerodynamics, but my male relatives laughed and discouraged me, saying that it’s a subject only for boys.

It was a harsh environment to grow up in, but I didn’t want anyone else to decide my life for me. I’d always been top of the class and so without hesitation I took all mathematics and physics modules in high school. I was so glad when I got the MSci Physics offer from Imperial College, and I ran a hemisphere away from my home to fulfil my life with freedom and physics.

I struggled with my mental health throughout my undergrad, but I slowly learned to value my own feelings and to provide unconditional care and love to myself. Despite all the trauma in the past, I believe I’m born strong, talented and tough as a woman, so I’m rigid in my commitment to live life in the way I love, pursuing physics and encouraging all my interests.

I’m also extremely grateful to my supervisor, Dr Heather Graven, and all the talented female researchers in the department who have been important role models throughout my physics journey. They gave me faith when I felt overwhelmed by the male-dominated environment and wanted to give up. This reminds me of a quote “She sees her, so she becomes her.”

“Don’t listen to what others may say – it’s your life and you are the only decision maker. Your opinions and values are the only things that matter.”

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

Believe in yourself – you have all you need in you already! Listen to your heart and go for the physics career path that you’re passionate about. I know you’ve imagined it thousands of times, and I believe you could even be bolder about it. Honestly, I was terrified when I made my first step. I was young and knew very little, but now I’m grateful to the younger me that bravely took that step. Don’t listen to what others may say – it’s your life and you are the only decision maker. Your opinions and values are the only things that matter.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Diversity means people having an equal right to participate in the physics career they’re passionate about. It means our voices are heard and our experiences are seen. Lack of diversity leads to discrimination in recruiting and marking and creates barriers for women and minority students. From my personal experience, I just felt so bad being the only woman in a group project. I constantly feel out of place because the physics department is so male-dominated. Diversity means these experiences are valued and we connect with our community to empower ourselves.

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

The scholarship is a great opportunity to financially support your dream PhD project, valuing your experience and personal ability instead of a rigid academic performance requirement. The application process is easy and the IOP staff are friendly and helpful. You can also talk to your host university and prospective supervisor for advice – I’m sure they’d be more than happy to support you. We’re all learning in these processes, there is no shame in asking for information or not understanding something.

Please feel free to apply for it! No matter what, I believe in you.