‘Science can be nourishing but it does not have to consume you’: we talk to Sunayana Bhargava, joint winner of this year’s Adam Weiler Award, about her PhD experience and research into dark matter

Portrait of Adam Weiler winner Sunayana Bhargava.

The annual Adam Weiler Award goes to a doctoral researcher who shows the potential to achieve outstanding impact in their chosen field, the result of a generous donation from the family of a former Sussex student. This year, the prize was split between Sunayana and Halldor Ulfarsson (MFM/MAH). Read our interview with Halldor elsewhere on the blog.

> Tell us a little about your research.
My research is focused on studying the largest objects in our universe – clusters of galaxies! I look at these objects because they tell us how our cosmos evolved from the Big Bang till now. Galaxy clusters are incredibly powerful tools to help us understand astronomy’s biggest unknowns – dark matter and dark energy – and we are at an exciting junction where we have more data to uncover this than ever before!

> What impact do you hope your research will achieve?
Dark matter has been frustratingly elusive since it was indirectly discovered nearly 100 years ago. Investigations into dark matter signatures by studying objects in space are both creative and promising ways to understand where the missing matter in our universe lurks. To be able to constrain the properties of one possible dark matter candidate (the sterile neutrino) and forecast ways to possibly find it with future searches will hopefully help us to narrow our scope of what dark matter actually is!

> How will the prize money help you?
Once we return to a safe and stable state with respect to the current pandemic, I hope to travel overseas for a conference on dark matter to present my work!

> Tell us about your journey to the PhD, and what keeps you motivated.
I think the more time I spent studying, from my college days to my undergraduate, the more I became curious as to where the limitations of our knowledge were. It takes a lot of resilience to stay in a field which is often preoccupied with its legacy as being the most esoteric scientific discipline, upheld by celebrated titans like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. But nurturing curiosity alongside resilience eventually pushed me towards a PhD.

However, I think I would not have stayed motivated were it not for the reminder that physics, no matter how abstract, is only as good as its physicists. I have met some wonderful people who reminded me that science can be satisfying and nourishing, but it does not have to consume you, and that does not make you any less of a scientist.

> What advice would you offer to new doctoral researchers starting out?
Try and build a community early! PhDs are very rewarding but can also be isolating. Having others around you to blow off steam and speak with in terms you both understand will help a lot. Throw yourself into your work! It’s a remarkable feeling to be paid to research your topic of interest. Talk to people, learn about what is interesting and meaningful in your field, put your name out there, make yourself visible. PhD students are the lifeblood of academia so never feel like your work is not significant. Then of course, take (proper!) breaks. This will stop you from burning out.  

> What is your favourite thing about studying at Sussex, or your favourite place on campus?
Sussex is both a very stimulating and relaxed environment, and I think that balance is hard to find in a lot of other universities. My favourite place on campus is any of the places where you can see the wildflowers growing in the spring/summer! They’re absolutely gorgeous.  

> There is life outside the PhD! What do you do away from your research? I am a poet and writer! I also spend my time organising with solidarity organisations. Otherwise you can usually finding me planning my next hike somewhere or practicing my homemade pasta techniques. 

> What’s next for you, in your work or otherwise?
I have recently started a position as a postdoctoral researcher at CEA Paris-Saclay, where I hope to continue untangling the mysteries of the universe from my little corner.