Breaking Barriers: “As a woman in physics, you’re always a minority”

From Bloomsbury to Boston, Ghazal has faced barriers to pursuing her career in Physics. Penny Richmond sat down with her former classmate to find out how Ghazal came out on top in her fight against the Home Office, sexual harassment, and the Higher Education market.

Ghazal, we started our Physics undergraduates at UCL together a few years ago, what have you been up to since then?

I graduated [in Theoretical Physics from UCL] in 2018 a month after I got married.

Things were hectic at the time. I could not get funding to do my PhD in the UK, so I applied to the Harvard Physics department later that year. My application was considered “unique”. I got in, but they had to wait for a while for some more government paperwork. Finally in February 2019, I got to Massachusetts.

Ghazal now studies at Harvard University.

How come your situation was described as “unique”? Why was it so hard to get funding in the UK?

I was born in Persia, which most people now refer to as Iran, and been waiting to get my British passport for a long time. I had no documents for a while. It was fair for universities to not consider me as there was no way of knowing if I was in the UK legally. But I was! My mother is British, as is my husband, and I grew up in England. It was just some government work which took more time than it should have. It also meant I was not able to take my Graduate Record Examinations (GREs).

Does this mean that even though you are British, you were an undergraduate at UCL as an international student?

No, no. I was a home student all the way.

But why would it be so difficult to get funding in the UK for a PhD when you were a home student for your undergraduate degree?

I honestly do not know. I guess it is because I did not have any other documents at that time which proved that I applied for British citizenship.

That is very strange. Do you think that had you applied for PhD funding in the UK prior to the Brexit vote the situation would be different, and if so how?

The vote DID slow down the government work. They had other things to focus on at the time rather than looking at my application. We contacted our MP and he got in touch with the Home Office explaining the situation. In one of his letters back he mentioned it could be slowed down by Brexit. 

How was applying for funding in the US compared to funding in the UK?

At Harvard they have international office that considers these issues separately.

Every case is considered… and everyone gets the same amount of funding for PhD. This makes everything simpler. My current position is an unpaid scholarship, but there are opportunities such as being a teaching fellow or a grader to earn some money in the meantime. 

Is it more challenging to be a woman in physics?

Well, not only Harvard. As a woman in physics, especially the theoretical side, you are always a minority and there is always the risk of sexual harassment, etc. Also, to me, it seems like most male professors are not all too patient or sensitive.

In what way do you mean “not too sensitive”? Can you give an example?

What I mean is that if you experience something with one of the supervisors, it is a bit tricky to report it because there could be a backlash from other supervisors for reporting an incident. You are afraid that other male supervisors may think you would report them, too, and refuse to work with you by bringing up excuses. This is exactly why I cannot even tell you an example of what I experienced.

How is a Fellowship different to just doing a PhD? 

This is a scholarship for two years with which I can work and study whatever I want, as long as the professor is cool with it. I am currently exploring different areas of research with prestigious academics. There are so many areas of physics that fascinate me. I now have a chance to take some courses I never had a chance to back at UCL such as Quantum Field Theory, some mathematical courses, and A-Z Blackholes by Andy Strominger.

Which area of Physics excites you the most?

What I am very interested in doing right now is connecting theoretical particle physics with experimental results by analyzing and interpreting new experimental data. I did a similar job in my Masters’ thesis on “Production of High Energy Neutrinos from Cosmic Strings” with the most recent data published by IceCube and ANITA experiments. This led me to calculate an upper bound on the heavy neutrino mass.

Ghazal: “As a woman in physics, you are always a minority.”

That’s awesome! Can you provide an explanation of what a cosmic string is?

The very early universe went through some symmetry breaking phase transitions. This caused some “cracks and rips” in the space-time itself called topological defects. The type of topological defects that formed depends on what form of symmetry has been broken. These defects differ in terms of dimensions. Zero-dimensional topological defects are magnetic monopoles and one-dimensional topological defects are cosmic strings.

How can something have 0 dimensions?

Let me give a quick explanation of what topological defects are (It might get a bit technical but it is a beautiful topic especially that you can observe them in condensed matter systems).

Topological defects occur when two neighboring parts of space are somewhat “out of phase” with each other. These configurations are in their original phase symmetric but nevertheless they persist after a phase transition to a new (asymmetric) phase. The type of defect formed is determined by the symmetry properties of the matter and the nature of the phase transition. 

So when we talk about monopoles, we are talking about when a spherical symmetry breaks in a phase transition of the theory. This leads to a “point-like” zero-dimensional topological object. Similarly, for cosmic strings we get the string configuration, a one-dimensional object, when a cylindrical symmetry breaks.

Where do you see your work on neutrinos going?

I love this question! 

So there are some experiments like IceCube, ANITA most of which are located in Antarctica, where the cosmic neutrino flux is measured and detected. There are many theories predicting the origin of these cosmic neutrinos. What I did in my paper was to predict the flux of the neutrinos produced from cosmic strings. The decay is as such: cosmic string to two heavy or sterile neutrinos to two neutrinos. I then calculated the upper bound for the heavy neutrino masses. More measurements in addition to further studies in this field can lead us towards the theory or theories which can explain the origin of these cosmic neutrinos.

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