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Ellen Oldershaw: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

Ellen’s work has the potential to change the way physics is taught in higher education in the UK, making it more accessible to students from minority backgrounds.

Ellen Oldershaw: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

My work is in Physics Education Research (PER), which uses a physics-based approach to look at how the subject is taught and understood. Specifically, I’ll be looking into physics in higher education and how it can be made more equitable and accessible to people from all backgrounds. Awarding gaps are differences in degree outcome between students that can only be attributed to demographic factors – in my research, I’ll be using machine learning techniques to study these gaps in UK university physics. I’ll also be studying how these machine-learning techniques and other artificial intelligence (AI) tools can be used to improve physics education for students, teachers and PER researchers alike.

With AI already creeping into education, there’s never been a better time to ensure its impact is positive. Likewise, providing equal opportunities at university is incredibly important for continuing to increase representation and diversify physics. Taking a physicist’s approach to identify physics education’s problems is definitely a step towards levelling the playing field and ensuring every physicist feels that they belong.

What drew you to this area of physics?

If you told 14-year-old me I’d be doing a PhD in physics one day, I don’t think she’d believe you. I always let academic pressure get to me at school and didn’t find out I could actually enjoy lessons until A-level. It was only then that I realised my love of patterns and logic, as well as my longing to know how everything worked, had a whole subject devoted to it in physics. I had a brilliant physics teacher who made it feel real and exciting. She, alongside my incredibly supportive family, encouraged me to pursue my interest in physics at university, despite me being convinced I wasn’t good enough.

I’ve always enjoyed communicating physics, from helping out in lessons at school to completing teaching and outreach internships over summer breaks. I found it fascinating both looking at how people learned complex ideas in physics and talking about them myself. In that sense, I’ve always found the physicist just as interesting as the physics. I also knew I enjoyed working with data and statistics, discovering my enjoyment of coding and its systematic approach at university.

I only found out I could combine both these passions while selecting my fourth-year research project. I was the first student to complete a masters project in the newly formed PER cluster at my university, and I’ll be their first PhD student too. They’ve been incredibly supportive and they’ve helped me to discover an area of physics I am truly excited about. I’ve never felt more like I belong as a physicist, which makes a nice change from the imposter syndrome I’ve grown used to!

What is the potential impact of your work?

My research has the potential to create real change in the way physics is taught in higher education in the UK – and hopefully improve the experiences of physics students from minority backgrounds who currently face unfair odds at university. It seems a no-brainer that someone’s demographic identity should have no bearing on whether they achieve an upper-class degree in physics, but currently the evidence suggests that it very much does. This work will be a step towards changing that. With the analysis I’ll be completing, we’ll be able to identify areas of good practice and encourage cross-institutional collaboration to implement strategies and policy that work towards bettering physics for everyone.

Looking into AI in education will hopefully shed some light on how advancing technology can have a positive impact on students’ learning, specifically in technical subjects like physics. Getting in front of AI before it’s in the classroom will mean its impact can be understood before it’s fully realised.

“PER isn’t funded by any research council in the UK, so the scholarship offers the only financial route available to completing my PhD – I literally could not do it without the grant.”

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

When I found out I had won the scholarship, I was genuinely thrilled! Getting to continue the work I started in my masters project – the subject I have most enjoyed during my degree – is an incredible opportunity that I’m really excited to pursue.

PER isn’t funded by any research council in the UK, so the scholarship offers the only financial route available to completing my PhD – I literally could not do it without the grant. Not only that, the funding means I can focus entirely on my studies without having to worry about my financial stability, which is a massive weight off my shoulders. I’m also excited to act as an ambassador for the grant during my studies, given the goals of the scholarship directly tie into my research aims.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

I've always put immense pressure on myself to achieve perfection in everything I do, at whatever cost that might demand. At university, this mindset manifested as struggles with my mental and physical health. I’ve suffered imposter syndrome since day dot, nursing the constant mental narrative that I’m a fraud who was never good enough to succeed. I actually nearly dropped out a few times because I was so convinced I didn’t deserve to be a physicist.

Poor representation in physics definitely contributed to my inability to picture myself as someone who belongs, such as actively noticing the gender imbalance and its subtle – and not so subtle – effects on my experience as a female physics student. Discovering the advantages that some of my peers benefitted from in their pre-university education was also a shock. Beyond having a much wider array of experiences, many arrived at university rightly feeling that their place there was earned, whilst I spent months feeling my admission had been a genuine mistake.

Knowing when to ask for help is so important, but also so difficult to do. My family have always been my biggest cheerleaders and taught me to never underestimate my self-worth or undersell my hard work. They also taught me that admitting you’re struggling isn’t a weakness, but a strength. I am immensely grateful for their love and support in everything I have done so far and plan to do next.

Surrounding myself with incredibly supportive and encouraging friends helped to propel me through my studies, as I knew I could lean on them when things got particularly tough. I also identified members of staff who were inspirational role models – my PhD supervisors included – who always made me feel I was worthy of both my position and being listened to. They have given me an invaluable source of affirmation that I am, in fact, good enough to study for a doctorate, and very much deserving of the title ‘physicist’.

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

Find your people! As soon as you get that sense of community and people to bolster you, it gets a little bit easier to accept that you deserve to be where you are. There are more people out there than you think who wish for your success and want to hear what you have to say, so you should have as much faith in yourself as they do.

Also, know that it’s OK to need help. Reach out to those who will encourage and support you wholeheartedly and adopt their perspective: you are already good enough, and you have nothing to prove to anyone saying otherwise.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

If physics is about understanding the world around us, then it needs to be representative of it, too. A diverse community will bring diverse perspectives to a problem, making finding a solution more likely. Physics is too quickly dismissed by so many as ‘something other people study’. I thought that myself once, too. Dismantling the widespread perception of physics as an exclusive subject requires the promotion of new voices in the conversation that are representative of everyone, inclusively.

Imposter syndrome is at its worst when you can’t see anyone like you in the room. Envisioning your future in physics is sometimes only possible when you can imagine yourself in a physicist’s shoes. That’s especially difficult when it feels like nobody around you has your shoe size, so to speak.

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

If it has even remotely crossed your mind, absolutely go for it! Even if you think there’s no chance you’ll get it, like I did – try to surround yourself with people who will tell you otherwise! Give yourself plenty of time to complete your application so that you’re totally happy with it when you submit it and enlist the help of your supervisors or prospective supervisors if you can. I’m incredibly grateful to my supervisors for their support throughout my application. Also, if you know someone who’s been in receipt of the grant before, get in touch with them! I’m sure they’ll be happy to help and offer invaluable advice on the application and interview processes.