Amelia Drew is a PhD candidate in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Here, she tells us about dark matter, being the only scientist in the family, and how to avoid feeling isolated during a PhD.
My parents are lawyers, and as far as I know there aren’t any other scientists in my family. I was really interested in maths, physics and biology at school, so I applied to Cambridge intending to study biology within the Natural Sciences Tripos. However, when I arrived I decided I preferred the physics course, so I switched!
My research sets out to determine potential observational signatures from cosmic and axion strings. Cosmic and axion strings are hypothetical cosmological objects that may have formed as a result of a phase transition in the early universe. An example of a phase transition in more familiar terms is the example of water freezing to ice. The so-called ‘axions’ emitted by axion strings are also a hypothetical dark matter candidate, where dark matter is a theoretical type of matter that makes up around 85% of the total matter in the universe. The detection of these strings would significantly enhance our understanding of the universe and fundamental physics.
On a daily basis, I am usually coding up and running simulations in my office. This involves developing and compiling highly parallelised code, which I run on powerful supercomputers. I then analyse my results to see if they fit with expected theoretical models. Outside my PhD work, I attend several seminars per week and also supervise undergraduate Natural Science students.
One of the most exciting things about working in my department has been meeting so many distinguished physicists and mathematicians. Working in such close proximity to Stephen Hawking was definitely a highlight, as he was such an inspiration to me and so many other students and scientists. The most rewarding aspect of studying theoretical physics at Cambridge is the high standard of the research. Cambridge has a prestigious reputation, and the quality of the research is world-class. In my department, the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, there is a lot of technical support available, as well as funding to enable students to travel to schools and conferences abroad. The department also has around 30-40 PhD students, making it a very sociable place to study.
It can be easy in the early days of a PhD to feel isolated from others working in your field, or not to be aware of them at all. Towards the end of my first year, I attended a two-week summer school in Spain on gravitational radiation. This really opened my eyes to the research being carried out by students all over Europe and allowed me to put my research into a wider context.
Pursue your passion, regardless of whether others in the field intimidate you or try to put you off. It can often be overwhelming being in an environment that is so male-dominated, which is especially the case in maths, physics and computing. Make sure to remind yourself that you have as much right to be there as anybody else. If science is what you want to do, go for it!