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Christopher Le Quesne: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

First inspired as a child by his grandfather’s passion for astronomy, today Christopher’s research into star-forming gases could help us in our search for life on other planets.

Physicist Christopher LeQuesne wearing glasses

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

I’m researching the use of statistical tools to describe the structure of star-forming gases. Think about the magnificent images we see of nebulas like the Pillars of Creation and Horsehead. Being attracted to the beauty of these objects, I was curious to learn more about them. When choosing my project, I recognised that star formation was a very active field of research, which prompted me to get involved.

My research goal is to design and improve algorithms that can decompose and characterise the structure of these star-forming clouds. From this we can infer the physical processes at play in creating them and potentially explain different types of star formation. I’m driven by a long-term passion for astronomy, which I gained as a young boy, and which I nurture through my hobby in astrophotography alongside this research.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I first became excited about astronomy when I was still in primary school, as I was taught about it by my grandad. He had a hobby in visual astronomy and built his own telescope from plumbing salvage (see picture later on this page).

One night, he let me use this telescope to view Saturn, which I was amazed to see. Later, he took me on a trip to Jodrell Bank to see the Lovell Telescope. I remember learning about neutron stars and the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell from my experience of this trip. As I progressed through school, I realised that I had a strong aptitude for mathematics and science.

I wanted to keep learning about astronomy and physics, so I got the required A-levels, enrolled on an undergraduate MSci in physics with astronomy at the University of Nottingham and graduated with honours. I then took a break to work for five years as a data analyst, which helped me to improve my computational skills, but from there I decided to return to my passion by applying for a PhD at Cardiff University.

What is the potential impact of your work?

My work will help to improve the capability of statistical tools to decompose the structure of molecular gas in space. With this decomposition, we can then use physics to infer how different structures may form and predict where this might lead to star formation, as well as the types of stars that will be generated in different regions of space.

These insights could tell us where to look for stars like our own sun which can provide us with new information about the early history of our solar system. It may potentially teach us new things about what caused the conditions that produced our star and the early history that led to the formation of the Earth. With this information, alongside other research in the fields of star formation and exoplanets, we could potentially narrow down our search for life on other planets. My work could also benefit observational astronomy by making specific analytical techniques more accessible in the next generation of observational research.

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

Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s story inspired my passion for astronomy, and so to be accepted for her fund is a great honour. As an autistic person who also struggles with generalised anxiety disorder, the opportunity to be an ambassador not only for the fund but for the people in physics and postgraduate research who have neurological and/or mental health conditions is something I’m very excited about.

I want to use this platform to give people like me a chance to be better understood and supported by academic institutions. The fund will provide me with helpful living cost support to aid in my self-funded research, especially since my costs can be disproportionate due to my needs as an autistic person. I also have a vision defect, so the living cost support of this fund has made the medical costs of that easier to manage.

I recognise that a PhD is a huge undertaking. I expect there to be many difficult obstacles and stressful experiences in this journey, but I am also excited about the opportunity to be deeply invested in my passion and to be a part of the astrophysics research community.

“Anxiety can be a struggle, but it can also keep us on our toes, and in this discipline, it’s more of a strength to overthink than to underthink.”

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

I struggled with the process of university disability support at first. The main issue is that many disabled people do not know what reasonable adjustments they can ask for, especially recently diagnosed people like me who are still learning about their condition. My experience is that tailored advice is not adequately provided. The initial support I received was too generic and meant for undergraduate students, which was not helpful for me as a new PhD student with limited knowledge of the course structure.

Even after I informed them of my autism diagnosis there were no recommendations for the specific needs of autistic people. As an autistic person, it can also be very challenging to deal with vague language and guidance, and we often require information to be both clear and specific so that we don’t overthink the details. This whole process is stressful because it can be very difficult to discuss our needs without fear of stigmatisation. I think universities could help by giving clear and specific but non-exhaustive guidance on how different disabilities can be supported. 

It’s evident that universities face significant staffing issues when it comes to disability support, and this needs to be addressed.

I also struggled with my application for Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) with the Student Loans Company. I first applied on the basis of my anxiety problems, but was not provided with most of the equipment recommended by my needs assessor. There was little explanation for this other than ‘not enough detail was provided’ despite my assessor giving a very detailed account of my needs.

After I got my autism diagnosis, I applied a second time. Initially, my application was rejected because of ‘insufficient evidence’, despite me providing my medical diagnostic report. They then sent me a form they wanted me to get filled in by a medical professional. My autism assessor filled this form in for me, which repeated what was on my diagnostic report, and my evidence was then accepted. It took six months for me to receive the support equipment I needed. This caused me a great deal of stress and I strongly urge the Student Loan Company to review its policies, which are clearly not helpful for those with mental health conditions.

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

It is believed that many postgraduate students are neurodivergent, and it’s common for us to have skills and traits that can serve us well in physics, such as intense focus, attention to detail, thinking outside the box and a strong sense of justice. Anxiety can be a struggle, but it can also keep us on our toes, and in this discipline, it’s more of a strength to overthink than to underthink. You may face barriers, but there are often ways we can reshape our disadvantages into our strengths, and there are good people in this world who want to support us and ensure that we thrive.

I encourage all students who can relate to my story to apply for a PhD. You are not alone in your struggles and I hope that my story will help you get the support you deserve.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Diversity enables passionate people with unique thinking styles and fresh perspectives to solve challenging research problems in physics, and it removes social limitations to success for disadvantaged people. But to fully embrace diversity, we must recognise that it needs to be supported properly. In the case of neurodivergence, its prevalence in postgraduate research means that physics schools have an incentive to make their courses accessible for neurodiverse students.

In fact, any disadvantaged group that aspires to be involved in this field despite their disadvantages must be passionate and therefore deserves the same considerations. Diversity is also important in academic posts as this will provide disadvantaged groups with proper representation and ensure that the right kind of support can be implemented for both students and staff.

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

I have spoken to other neurodivergent students in my school who didn’t think they would be eligible for this fund, and I believe there are others with similar doubts across the country. I want to assure you that you are eligible, and I encourage you to apply! Neurodivergent people are disadvantaged – we struggle with social skills which can limit our access to funding and we have increased costs of living due to our needs for comfort (e.g. private living space). These are perfect justifications for needing the extra support. I encourage anyone else who is eligible to apply, because anyone who is disadvantaged will have some need for this fund.