Diversity and inclusion

Launch of the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund

On Tuesday (19 March) the IOP celebrated the launch of the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund (the Fund). The IOP’s Chief Operating Officer Rachel Youngman reflects on the ideas behind the fund and why it is an important step forward for physics research in the UK and Ireland. 

What is the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund? 

The Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund will support students wishing to study PhD Physics and has a specific mission to help students from groups currently under-represented in physics, including female students, black and other minority ethnic (BAME) students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Fund has been made possible thanks to the generosity of Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who last year won the prestigious Breakthrough Prize for the discovery of pulsars. Dame Jocelyn chose to donate her £2.3m prize award to the Institute of Physics to set up the Fund. 

The Fund will be administered and managed by the IOP and supported by a panel, chaired by Professor Helen Gleeson OBE, which will review qualifying applicants and select those to be funded. Applications will open in Autumn 2019 and potential applicants can find out more and register their interest.

Why is such a fund needed?

Throughout her career, including her time as the first female President of the IOP, Dame Jocelyn has championed women in physics and advocated the need for diversity within the physics community. 

She has talked openly about feeling like an outsider during her own studies; how at university she was more often than not the only woman present, and one of the few people not from the south of England. She has been clear in her ambition to make a difference in this area, and has told us that she saw the money she was awarded as a result of the Breakthrough prize as an extraordinary chance to try and create a meaningful solution to a systemic problem. In Jocelyn’s own words: ‘This kind of fund says it's not just middle-class white males who do PhDs in physics.’ This chimes very much with the IOP’s own focus on challenging stereotypes, and promoting gender equality and diversity across its programmes including in its education, outreach and public engagement work.  

That’s why I believe this is such an important initiative – it challenges the system and says to students from all backgrounds that they can come into physics and that there are people in the physics community, like Dame Jocelyn, who are ready and willing to offer support and encouragement. 

How did IOP mark the launch of the Fund?

We released a specially commissioned short film of Dame Jocelyn and three more each telling the story of a student’s physics journey so far. Eight PhD and BSc students joined Dame Jocelyn, our CEO Professor Paul Hardaker and me on Tuesday to view the films together and share tea, cake and conversation at an event at IOP’s London office on Caledonian Road. The tea party was preceded by a tour of the IOP building and it was a delight to show the students around the building and to hear how proud they were as young physicists of this flagship physics building. 

The students had not met each other before or seen the final films made by IOP – and they had also not met Dame Jocelyn. The event was full of animated discussion, questions and laughter and I think we all enjoyed it as much as the students did! By the end of the lively, heart-warming event the students were firm friends and looking to continue to keep in touch. I hope that we have the start of our Fund’s alumni and I know that is something that Dame Jocelyn would love to see for those who receive scholarships in the future. We have spoken a lot about how this might start a new movement of people who can find support and encouragement in this network as they forge their careers in physics. The Fund’s alumni will add to physics’ diversity - with all the value that will bring – wherever they choose to work, and they will do so with the support of Dame Jocelyn and IOP. 

What next for the fund and the future?

We have a number of different aims for the future and what we will think of as success for this incredible initiative. As I’ve said we hope to create a network of active and engaged alumni, who have been supported by the Fund and who have a strong, supportive network that can in turn help support others. I would like to think that in 20 years’ time, physicists who have come up through the Fund could in-turn be on the selection panel, supporting the next generation of physicists from all parts of society to achieve their potential. 

We also want to ensure that the fund is sustainable, and that Dame Jocelyn’s vision of her donation acting as a catalyst for others is realised, so we will be launching a fundraising campaign to encourage others to donate too - and help make possible a future when physics is as diverse as wider society, and is all the stronger for that diversity. 

A new PhD scholarship fund to encourage greater diversity in physics

Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund