Student awarded grant from innovative Institute of Physics Research-scholarships fund

Thursday, 27 May 2021

A physics student from the University of Nottingham has been awarded one of this year’s prestigious grants from the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund.

Robert Smith is studying for a PhD in physics and has been awarded a scholarship for his research that looks at new theories in quantum gravity and string theory which will expand our understanding of the universe and the possibilities of spacetime.


The innovative fund was set up by Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Institute of Physics (IOP), the UK and Ireland’s professional body for physicists.

Dame Jocelyn, a former president of the IOP, was awarded the 2019 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her role in the discovery of pulsars, and for her continued scientific leadership and engagement with the scientific and wider communities.

The Breakthrough Prize included award included £2.3m which she immediately donated to the IOP to help counter what she described as ‘the unconscious bias that still exists in physics research’ saying: "I don't need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put it to."

The Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund that resulted is an innovative doctoral scholarships fund that aims to encourage diversity in physics by assisting students from groups under-represented in the physics research community to undertake physics PhD programmes.

Students encouraged to apply include women, people with refugee status, and ethnic minority, disabled, financially disadvantaged and other students who would otherwise struggle to complete a course of postgraduate study due to their circumstances.

In 2019/20, just 25% of physics undergraduate students were female, and 81% of UK-domiciled physics undergraduates were white.1

Robert’s physics journey has not been straightforward. His Asperger’s has made school and university difficult environments to navigate. Thanks to his hard work and determination, along with support from his university, he’s about to embark on his PhD. He said: “I’m both proud and honoured to have been awarded the scholarship for the duration of my PhD, in which I will be looking into M-theory. I’m also proud to have affiliation with the Institute of Physics and to take on an ambassadorial role."

To pursue a PhD at such a wonderful university and as part of a very cool research group, to get to continue working with Tony Padilla and also Ed Copeland and study my maths and physics in an encouraging environment, is kind of life-changing.
Robert Smith, PhD student and recipient of the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund.

As part of the selection process, applicants are asked how they would act as be ambassadors for the Fund, to help introduce other students to it.

Professor Helen Gleeson, Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Leeds, is the Chair of Judges. She said:“It’s a privilege to play a part in identifying and working with the recipients of the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund.

“The competition was very tough, with a large number of excellent students applying. I was hugely impressed by the candidates,but saddened that without funds such as this they probably cannot take that next step in their careers.

“This year we were able to double the number of awards made due to fundraising by the Institute of Physics that builds on Dame Jocelyn’s donation. That meant that eight thoroughly deserving students can embark on a PhD who would not have otherwise been able to do so.

“The difference that this fund is making is perhaps encapsulated in what one student said to me on learning of their award of a Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship: I can’t emphasise how much this means to me. …I am looking forward to mentoring future students in the same nurturing manner that (he and) other academics have done for me… Thank you for changing my life.’

“The successful applicants are all embarking on exciting research projects, and we are looking forward to them inspiring others in their ambassadorial role.”

To be able to hear what it means to the lives and futures of those who have and are now receiving scholarships is heartening for all of us who are committed to improving diversity in physics. We know that diversity means better research, and together with our continued commitment to support the physics community in being an inclusive environment within which everyone can thrive, we will see significant changes. Dame Jocelyn’s generosity has made this possible and we remain incredibly proud that we are able to run this scheme and be part of seeing greater diversity of those able to go on to study for their PhDs.
Rachel Youngman, Deputy Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics

Read more about Robert and his research here:

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Notes to editors:

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our students. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. Ranked 103rd out of more than 1,000 institutions globally and 18th in the UK by the QS World University Rankings 2022, the University’s state-of-the-art facilities and inclusive and disability sport provision is reflected in its crowning as The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021 Sports University of the Year. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally. Alongside Nottingham Trent University, we lead the Universities for Nottingham initiative, a pioneering collaboration which brings together the combined strength and civic missions of Nottingham’s two world-class universities and is working with local communities and partners to aid recovery and renewal following the COVID-19 pandemic.

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