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Department of Physics

The Cavendish Laboratory
 
Ayngaran Thavanesan standing in front of a black board filled with equations.

Ayngaran Thavanesan, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge has been awarded one of this year’s prestigious grants from the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund. 

Ayngaran will be completing his PhD in theoretical cosmology at the Kavli Institute for Cosmology (KICC), which brings together Cavendish Astrophysics with the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) and the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP).  

His project will focus on the physics and cosmology of the early and late stages of our universe. It will develop the physical theory of both periods and derive observable predictions for the effect that echoes from either end of time have on the night sky today. He will be continuing to study cosmological correlators and the wavefunction of the universe under the supervision of Dr Will Handley with the close collaboration of Professor Anthony Lasenby and DAMTP academics Professor Anne-Christine Davis and Dr. Enrico Pajer.  

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 during her PhD here at the Cavendish, and for her continued scientific leadership and engagement with the scientific and wider communities.  

The Breakthrough Prize 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]  

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. 

Ayngaran's parents came to the UK as refugees from Sri Lanka. His passion for cosmology has seen him overcome hurdles and self-doubt, emulating his parents’ resilience in order to complete a PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory. His journey has been supported by various members of the Cambridge cosmology community, in particular Professor Christopher Reynolds, Professor Cathie Clarke and Susan Hatley at the Institute of Astronomy; Dr. Chandrima Gangly, Dr. Enrico Pajer, Professor Anne-Christine Davis and one of her many accomplished PhD students Dr. Sebastián Céspedes at DAMTP.  

Ayngaran said: “My Tamil family came to the UK as refugees from Sri Lanka, and like Faraday, I am the first from my low-income family to have any academic qualifications. To now be working on such challenging research is hopefully something which will demonstrate to people like me that one’s past and circumstances can be inconsequential of one’s future. 

“As likely the first from my ethnic group to pursue this field, I look up to the likes of Professor Anne-Christine Davis - the first woman to be appointed a professor in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University; and Professor Cathie Clarke - the first woman to be awarded the Eddington Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society. I am beyond lucky to have them and the fantastic students they have nurtured as supervisors and mentors. 

 “The Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship is a dream come true.  Not only does an award like this remove financial barriers, which is one of the main barriers to entry, but it also gives us a platform to interact with like-minded peers and seniors.” 

Royal Society University Research Fellow Dr Will Handley, Ayngaran’s PhD supervisor, said: “I'm delighted that Ayngaran has been given this award, and look forward to continue working with him through this critical stage in his academic career.  

“The Bell Burnell Fund has the chance to be transformative in encouraging future students from under-represented backgrounds to apply for Physics PhDs at Cambridge, and we are lucky to have students like Ayngaran leading the way.” 

Ayngaran is also working closely with collaborators from the Netherlands responsible for recent exciting advancements of the field, namely Dr. Guilherme Pimentel, Carlos Duaso Pueyo, Professor Daniel Baumann, who with Professor Subodh Patil and Professor Jan Pieter van der Schaar will be hosting him for a PhD visiting position through the Delta Institute for Theoretical Physics once the pandemic allows for an in-person visit. 

[1]Higher Education Statistics Agency Student Record 2019/20  

 

Photo by Andrew Sellek