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Abbey Barnard: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

Particle physicist Abbey’s pioneering work with neutrinos could help us to understand why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe.

Abbey Barnard: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

Tell us about your work – and what drives you.

My area of research focuses on understanding neutrinos, a type of fundamental particle. Despite being incredibly abundant – there are trillions of them passing through us every second – there’s still a lot we don’t know about them, like how much they weigh, which of the three different types is the heaviest and how exactly they interact with the world around them. They could help us to answer some of physics’ biggest questions, such as why there’s more matter than antimatter in the universe.

Neutrinos are produced by a multitude of different things: from nuclear fusion in the Sun to supernovae and particle accelerators, and even bananas! Using detectors at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois, I’m particularly interested in studying how accelerator neutrinos interact with argon, the material inside our detectors. Accurately measuring these interactions is crucial for enabling future neutrino experiments to make precise measurements, which will ultimately help answer these fundamental questions.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I grew up in Macclesfield, Cheshire, home to the Jodrell Bank Observatory and the iconic Lovell Radio Telescope. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of visiting the Observatory with my grandparents, who sparked my love of physics. I was never any good at most subjects at school, but a surprise mark in my physics GCSE gave me the confidence to pursue it further.

From the moment I started my A-levels, I knew particle physics was the thing for me. During this time, I had the incredible opportunity to visit CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, on the border between France and Switzerland. This experience was life-changing and remains a defining moment for me. The excitement I felt at CERN is something I’ll never forget. After that visit, I made a promise to myself: when I was at university, I would apply for an internship there. Little did I know that just four years later I would spend my summer in Switzerland, living out the dream of young Abbey! In my final year at university, I completed a master’s project in neutrino physics and haven’t looked back since.

What is the potential impact of your work?

Why is there more matter than antimatter in the Universe? Are neutrinos their own antiparticles? How much do neutrinos weigh? The Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) is a next-generation experiment designed to shine new light on these questions, beginning around the end of the decade. DUNE, with its 40 ktons of liquid argon, will be able to detect neutrinos better than we’ve ever been able to before. The successful realisation of DUNE’s ambitious physics goals hinges on an exceptional prior understanding of neutrino interactions and behaviours in argon. My PhD project is intricately aligned with this objective, concentrating on advancing world knowledge of neutrino interactions.

MicroBooNE is the world’s longest-running liquid argon neutrino experiment and has the largest data set of neutrino interactions on argon. During my project, I’ll perform one of the most accurate measurements of electron neutrino interactions, which is particularly interesting because these are exactly what DUNE is looking for. This measurement will provide foundational knowledge essential for developing neutrino interaction models, ultimately enabling the precision measurements made by DUNE and allowing it to reach its ground-breaking physics goals.

“There have been so many times when I was tempted to give up, but I’m glad I didn’t because now I’m doing what young Abbey always wanted to do and more.”

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

As cheesy as it sounds, winning this scholarship is a dream come true! Like with many things in my life, it’s something I never thought I’d be able to achieve, and I’m still quite shocked that it’s happened. I’m extremely grateful – not only for the financial support the fund will bring but also for the equal opportunities it will provide. Taking on a PhD has been a lifelong goal, and I now feel like I can properly enjoy it.

Winning the scholarship makes me feel a lot more confident going forward in my studies. It will enable me to go home and help support my family, one of the biggest worries I have that sometimes affects my work. Being able to do this without the financial burden is a huge relief, and my research and well-being will be exponentially better because of it.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

Growing up wasn’t easy for me. I come from a low-income background, and my parents divorced when I was in high school. I didn’t get much support at home, which was difficult. At times it felt like I was constantly being discouraged by those around me, especially as I got older. No one understood why I wanted to pursue a career in physics – derogatory and belittling comments felt normal after so long, and I started to seriously doubt whether I was making the right decision.

I began to struggle socially and academically during my A-levels, which went unnoticed until I was diagnosed with ADHD in my second year of university. It put a lot of my past experiences into perspective and brought its own set of new unique challenges which I still experience today. Now, I’m in the best research group anyone could ever ask for, where I’m accepted for who I am and supported through these challenges.

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

My biggest piece of advice would be to keep pushing for what you want to achieve, despite any discouragement from those around you. There have been so many times when I was tempted to give up, but I’m glad I didn’t because now I’m doing what young Abbey always wanted to do and more. Sometimes your biggest enemy can be yourself – imposter syndrome is a real thing, and more people experience it than you might think. Just know that you were meant to be here doing what you’re doing, and if things get tough, be kind to yourself. You’re not in this alone!

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

From my experience working on a 190-person-strong experiment, I've learned firsthand that our scientific achievements are significantly enhanced by our diversity. Equality, diversity and inclusion in physics drive discovery and innovation and are crucial for the future of the field. Representation helps break down barriers, create a more inclusive environment and foster a sense of belonging and support. When young scientists see others like them achieving their goals, it reassures them that they can do it too.

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

If you’re considering applying for the fund, I highly encourage you to go for it! The application process can seem daunting at first, but it’s an invaluable opportunity to reflect on your achievements and goals and to highlight the incredible work you’ve done. Remember, the fund is meant to support people from diverse backgrounds, so don’t hesitate to apply even if you don’t see yourself as the ‘typical’ candidate. Embrace the chance to showcase your unique experiences and perspectives – you never know how your story might inspire others!