The scholarship is aimed at outstanding PhD physics students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Two PhD students from the Department of Physics have been awarded the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship, a scholarship fund aimed at supporting outstanding graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds. Xinran Yang and Raymond Isechei will begin pursuing their doctorate at Imperial at the start of the next academic year.
Named after Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship is administered by the Institute of Physics (IOP). It was founded when Professor Dame Burnell donated her £2.3m Breakthrough Prize towards setting up a fund for increasing diversity in research.
Professor Dame Burnells received the Breakthrough Prize in 2018 for her discovery of pulsars as a PhD candidate at Cambridge University. The discovery of pulsars won the 1974 Nobel Prize, but it was awarded to her male supervisor instead of her.
“Wherever we look there are problems that need physicists to help solve them and the more diverse we can make the population of physics researchers and innovators the more effective and creative it will be,” says Rachel Youngman, Deputy Chief Executive of the IOP.
She says: “This is wonderful news for those awarded grants, who deserve the highest congratulations, but it is also already making an impact on all of our lives thanks to the science it is supporting and will continue to do so for many years to come.”
Investigating Einstein’s “biggest blunder”
Isichei will be researching the origin of the ‘cosmological constant’, a mathematical term in the equations of general relativity, which physicist Albert Einstein described as his “biggest blunder”.
Isichei explains that when Einstein was formulating his theory of general relativity, he believed that there had to a force that counteracted gravity. “We know that gravity is attractive; it pulls matter together. The universe wants to close in on itself, so the cosmological constant is a term that causes it to expand, a repulsive force,” he says.
One of the ingredients in the cosmological constant is ‘vacuum energy’, the background energy that exists throughout the Universe, even in empty space.
In order for the Universe to expand, scientists predicted that the amount of vacuum energy had to be huge. The problem was that the actual measured amount is about 120 orders of magnitude smaller.
In my opinion, the cosmological constant is the most deep and philosophical thing you can study in physics. Raymond Isichei Department of Physics
“In my opinion, the cosmological constant is the most deep and philosophical thing you can study in physics,” says Isichei.
Born to Nigerian immigrant parents, Isichei first pursued chemistry and mathematics at Trinity College Dublin. After discovering a love of mathematics and physics, Isichei joined Imperial in 2021 as a MSc student. He will be starting his doctoral degree in August under the supervision of Professor Joao Magueijo.
Tracking methane sources to fight climate change
Yang will be investigating the sources of one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, methane. Over a 100-year timescale, methane has 28 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide but its sources are still under debate.
We don’t know how much is coming from fossil fuels or biogenic sources, so it’s hard to know what’s going on. Xinran Yang Department of Physics
“We don’t know how much is coming from fossil fuels or biogenic sources, so it’s hard to know what’s going on,” Yang says.
Yang will be extending the research she started as an MSci student in Imperial, which uses the radioactive carbon isotope, carbon-14, to model greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon-14 is an unstable isotope and the concentration of it in a material decays over time. Since they are so old, fossil fuels have no measurable carbon-14 at all.
“By looking at the concentration of carbon-14, we can tell how much of the methane came from our fossil fuel budget versus other sources,” say Yang.
Yang’s passion for the environment came when she travelled as a young child to see volcanoes and mountains: “I’ve always felt a connection with nature.” As she pursued physics as an undergraduate, she became interested in gender equality in education and published research in gender studies.
During her doctorate degree, Yang wants to help organise more events for gender minorities in her department to help build support networks. She is also the co-founder of the studio, Asymmetry Studio, which aims to improve the depiction of women in various roles, including science, in video games.
Yang will be supervised by Dr Heather Graven and will be starting her degree in September.
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