Menu Close


Log in to personalise your experience and connect with IOP.

Gracie McGill: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

Working with imagery from the Euclid telescope, galactic archaeologist Gracie is working to understand how distant galaxies form and evolve.

Gracie McGill: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

My research is in galactic archaeology, which broadly involves looking at stars in the nearby universe to try and uncover how galaxies form and evolve. Galaxies grow by merging with and swallowing smaller dwarf galaxies and it is particularly interesting to study the very faint, extended outer regions of a galaxy, known as a stellar halo, as this region is expected to contain a goldmine of information about past mergers. I’ll be working with observations from the new Euclid telescope to map stars in the outer regions of galaxies in the nearby universe in order to build up an archaeological record. This is very exciting and will provide new insights into how galaxies form and evolve.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I’ve been interested in physics and science more broadly for pretty much as long as I can remember. I’ve always wanted to try and understand how things work and why they are a certain way. My parents always encouraged my curiosity and, when I was 16, my dad took me to the New Scientist Live event in London and this really sparked my interest in astrophysics in particular, so I decided to pursue this at university.

I was drawn to galactic archaeology specifically through my master’s project which I’ve just completed, as this gave me an insight into what I found to be a really exciting and fascinating area of research. I really loved working on this project, which involved analysing star clusters in the stellar halo of our neighbouring Andromeda galaxy, and so when I learned about the opportunity to work on this PhD research, I knew that it was perfect for me.

What is the potential impact of your work?

Galactic archaeology with the Euclid telescope is very exciting particularly because of its deep, high-resolution and wide-field imaging which will drastically improve our ability to analyse the faint outer regions of galaxies. Historically, wide-field mapping of halo stars in other galaxies has been very challenging due to observational limits, such as the effects of Earth’s atmosphere, which greatly limits the resolution of ground-based telescopes. Though Euclid’s main scientific focus is cosmology, it will also provide an unprecedented opportunity for wide-field mapping of stellar halo stars and my research will focus on using this data to build up an archaeological record of the stellar halos of galaxies in the nearby universe in order to uncover new insights into how galaxies form and evolve.

“Don’t let your self-doubt get the better of you. Try despite your doubts, because you are almost certainly more capable than you believe.”

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

I was so thrilled when I heard that I’d been awarded the scholarship – I couldn’t really believe it! I’m really passionate about astrophysics and I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in research. Winning this scholarship has made that a reality for me and has given me the opportunity to work in what I feel is one of the most exciting areas of research.

I’m honoured to have been selected as I think this is an amazing fund that’s making an important difference in promoting inclusivity and equality in physics. It’s also very encouraging. I’ve had my doubts about whether I’m really cut out to pursue a career in physics and as well as allowing me to do that, having been selected also feels like proof that I am good enough and that maybe I can do this. But, most importantly, it’s given me the opportunity to work on research that I’m really excited about and for that I am so truly grateful!

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

Like a lot of women in physics, I think some of my biggest struggles have been due to my self-doubt and struggles with impostor syndrome. Though there has been a lot of progress towards equality and inclusion, there’s still a pervading attitude that women – as well as others who don’t fit society’s narrow view of what it means to be a physicist – are not suited to research careers. Even though that’s nonsense, if you’re someone like me, who is already prone to doubting yourself, it can be hard to ignore those voices telling you that you can’t do it.

I’ve struggled with mental health issues for quite a long time now and these were particularly exacerbated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result of the lockdown, I spent the majority of the first two years of my undergraduate degree isolated and this had a really big impact on my self-confidence. Without the community of other students who shared my passion and my struggles, it became very difficult not to give in to self-doubt and the belief that I wasn’t cut out for this. I still struggle to believe in myself and my research, and I’m constantly working to overcome my own doubts, but I don’t want to let them stand in the way of me pursuing my dream.

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

Don’t give up. I know that’s definitely easier said than done but I think that being passionate about something is really special and if there is any possible way to do it then it really is worth trying. I would also say don’t doubt yourself, but I know how hard that can be, so instead I will say don’t let your self-doubt get the better of you. Try despite your doubts, because you are almost certainly more capable than you believe.

But probably the most important piece of advice I could ever give is that if you’re struggling, you are not alone and there are always people who want to help you and see you succeed – so don’t be afraid to rely on the support of those around you. I definitely wouldn’t have made it this far without the community I’ve found with other students or the support and encouragement of supervisors and tutors.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

It’s really important to have diversity in any field because it leads to more diverse ways of thinking and that is absolutely crucial, particularly for physics.

As well as that, I also just believe that anyone, no matter who they are, should be able to pursue whatever they are most passionate about. I think it’s very important to improve diversity in physics so we can move away from this idea that to be a physicist you have to be one very specific type of person and develop a more inclusive community, so that people who don’t fit that image can become physicists without having to worry about whether or not they’ll be accepted.

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

I would say go for it! I was pretty apprehensive about applying because I wasn’t sure I would be good enough, but it was definitely worth it! You don’t have anything to lose in trying and you never know how it might turn out. I would also say to be yourself. It can be quite intimidating to be honest about yourself, your struggles and particularly your strengths, but it was also a very validating experience for me. And again, you never know what might come out of it.