Last September, Armagh native, world-renowned physicist and former Inspirefest speaker Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell was awarded a special prize for fundamental physics worth $3m (€2.6m) by the organisers of the Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony for her discovery of pulsars in deep space.

At the time, she promised that rather than keeping the money, she would find a way for it to be used to help students underrepresented in physics boost their presence in an otherwise male-dominated space. Now, the physicist has followed through on that promise with the launch of the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund.

With the prize money, the fund will support women as well as students who are members of minorities and low socioeconomic backgrounds to diversify physics researchers as a whole.

While the finer details of the fund – such as what the funding criteria will be and eligibility – have not been finalised, it will support both full-time and part-time physics graduates and will be managed by the UK’s Institute of Physics. Despite it being operated out of the UK, Bell Burnell, speaking in Physics World, said that it will be open to students both in the UK and Ireland.

When asked about whether the issue of diversity in physics has been on her mind for a while, she admitted that she had been “concerned about the shortage of women in physics for a very long time”, but never thought she would have access to this amount of money.

She also responded to a question regarding whether she expects any backlash from white, middle-class men who say they are being denied access to funding by saying: “Yes. But they are in the majority and I think if they look around a physics department they can see they’re in the majority. The Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund is not going to deprive anybody. It is more of a top-up of an existing studentship.”

Colm Gorey

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