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Aida Seye: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

Aida’s research into dark matter could help us learn more about how stars move around our galaxy, its gravitational potential and even give us insights into the origins of the Sun.

Physicist Aida Seye standing outside

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

The goal of my PhD project is to map out the dark matter content of the Milky Way. Of all the matter in the universe, only 15% is visible to us – humans, stars, galaxies, gas, etc. The rest is the mysterious dark matter. This keeps galaxies from flying apart, but we have no idea what this dark matter is made of. We know that it exists through the way it interacts with the visible matter via gravity. Several candidates have been proposed, from modifying the current laws of gravity to light particles – or even to small black holes born at the very beginning of the universe during the Big Bang.

The search has been going on for the past few decades with no luck. In this project, we hope to understand how stars move around the galaxy and map its gravitational potential, which can help us shed light on the nature of this elusive matter.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I’d always been passionate about maths and thought astrophysics sounded cool – though I wasn’t too familiar with it. I chose to study it because I thought it would be a good step to apply my maths skills and explore a discipline that really interested me. It wasn’t until I started the degree that my passion was ignited.

The course that had the biggest impact on me was “Our Universe” where we learned about the constituents of it and the existence of dark matter and dark energy – and how the nature of these is one of the greatest mysteries of modern physics. I then undertook summer research internships that consolidated my interest. I really enjoyed how cross-functional the projects can be. When answering research questions, you can use simulations, theoretical models and observational data. I really enjoy being able to look at a single problem though various angles, which makes my PhD project an ideal fit.

What is the potential impact of your work?

This project will mostly deal with data from the Gaia satellite from the European Space Agency, which has mapped the motion of billions of stars in the Milky Way. It’s completely revolutionised galactic astronomy and catapulted it to its precision era. Apart from this data, there are other follow-up surveys that will tell us about the chemical composition of stars. More data is now available than ever before, so we’re in a unique position to unravel the structure, history and dark matter content of our Milky Way. From this, we can also infer how disc and spiral galaxies work in general.

We aim to derive precise and accurate stellar parameters. We’ll also track stellar orbits and deduce where each star has been born. We could even learn about the origin of the Sun as a result! To learn about the nature of the dark matter and place constraints on the current candidates, we’ll use the data to map the gravitational potential of the galaxy.

All of the above require that the data is properly cleaned, with no systematic errors, so a major part of the project will be designing and implementing cutting-edge analysis techniques.

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

Due to financial constraints, I’ve always had to study and work simultaneously. Receiving the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund gives me, for the first time, the privilege to explore my potential and conduct research full-time.

I’m excited to be part of initiatives that champion diversity in physics and astronomy. I’ve learnt the importance of having role models and mentors, so I aspire to be a visible example, showing the next generation like me that a career in physics and astronomy is possible. Sharing this opportunity with other underrepresented students, who don’t look like the stereotypical physicist, will be uplifting.

I hope the Scholarship will help me build a network of role models, demonstrating that minorities can become leading researchers in physics, as well as make it easier for me to build and take part in networks that help mentor and support women and people from minority backgrounds.

“Don’t let imposter syndrome get to you! If you’ve gone through the application process and been accepted, it means you belong there and you’re good enough to do it.”

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

The first challenge I faced was moving to Spain from Senegal at the age of 13. It was immensely difficult to join a secondary school, learning in languages I didn’t speak. Not being able to pursue what I wanted because of the language barrier was demoralising. I had discouraging teachers who insisted that the barrier was too high to overcome – passing secondary school, let alone going to university, would be impossible for me, according to them.

My ambition and passion were my shield, preventing any of the negative conversations getting to me. Through persevering I’ve been able to learn both Catalan and Spanish and continue into further education.

I previously studied for a master’s that didn’t go to plan. I struggled mentally and didn’t seek help. The lack of diversity in the course didn’t help and led to me being paralysed by imposter syndrome. Failing to achieve my goals first time around was hard to come to terms with, but my passion for physics and determination allowed me to overcome it.

I took two years out before embarking on a second master’s. I learned a great deal from my past experience and it’s going much better than the first one, but I’ve been doing it while working full-time to support myself. This means I haven’t been able to dedicate enough time to some of my courses and so haven’t always done as well as I could.

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

My advice is not to give up your dreams and keep going. If you persevere, you will eventually make it. I would also stress the importance of speaking up and seeking help.

I used to believe that I could do everything on my own and asking for help was a sign of weakness, putting unnecessary pressure on myself. It’s paramount to learn to ask for help – and to accept it when given. Some people might be discouraging, but not everyone will be. As I think about my experiences, the number of professors who have supported me outweighs the number of people who discouraged me. It’s easy to fixate on the negative but there are plenty of people who will be willing to help you.

Also, don’t let imposter syndrome get to you! If you’ve gone through the application process and been accepted, it means you belong there and you’re good enough to do it. You’re allowed to occupy these spaces.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

I think diversity of thought is important as it drives innovation. With these complex questions physics is trying to answer, the more ways of thinking and solving problems, the better. Also, these questions affect all of humanity, so everyone should be given the opportunity to contribute.

On the other hand, physics-based skills and knowledge are integral to many jobs and industries. The lack of minority representation in this field contributes to minorities falling behind in the job market, which is unjust.

I also believe that representation matters – the lack of diversity can make it hard to take the plunge and choose physics. If there’s no one like you, it’s hard to gauge if it’s for you and whether stepping outside of your comfort zone would be worth it. Physics and research are hard enough as it is, let alone also having this at the back of your mind. We need inclusive and supportive environments.

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

Go for it. I had my reservations but was actually convinced by my supervisor! I was overthinking the whole process and thought it would be more intimidating than it ended up being. It was the opposite – it was cathartic! Completing the application was a good exercise as it allowed me to sit and reflect on my achievements and celebrate them. It was positive to think about my passion for physics and where all the hardships along the way brought me. Your barriers and how you overcame them make you unique and even give you skills that are useful for research – like resilience, determination and not giving up at the first hurdle.