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Features: Faculty Insights


Irene Abril Cabezas is a PhD student in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and is one of the young scientists selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in July 2024. She tells us how family holidays watching the 'tears of St Lawrence' - the Perseid meteor shower - ignited her passion for cosmology and astrophysics, and about her research studying the afterglow light from the Big Bang to learn more about the very beginning of the Universe and the subsequent distribution of dark matter across cosmic time. 

My research focuses on the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This radiation — corresponding to the afterglow light from the Big Bang — was emitted when the Universe was less than 400,000 years old. The CMB radiation travels for more than 13,000 million years before it reaches our telescopes, and the trajectories of the CMB photons are deflected according to the dark matter distribution they encounter. This phenomenon, known as CMB lensing, is a powerful probe of cosmology and fundamental physics: it can be used to map the underlying matter distribution across cosmic time, which in turn contains a wealth of information about the properties of neutrinos, inflation, or dark energy.

As part of my PhD, I work as a member of the Atacama Cosmology Telescope Collaboration. The Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT), located in the high Chilean Andes, is now decommissioned after 15 years of operation. We were able to produce a map of the dark matter distribution using CMB lensing. I am now involved in the final analysis of the data gathered by this fantastic telescope to address key questions about the origin of the universe, the nature of dark energy or the formation of cosmic structure. 

I owe my passion for astrophysics and cosmology to my hometown, La Silva (El Bierzo, León). My family, both near and distant, reunites there during the summer. Every 10th of August, we celebrate the day of St. Lawrence, our patron Saint. This festivity coincides with the Perseids meteor shower, which is also known as 'the tears of St. Lawrence'. Observing this astronomical event in the pure night skies of El Bierzo is breathtaking. In astrophysics and cosmology I found the tools that allow us to understand the details of this heavenly phenomenon and the many others that accompany us every night.

I studied Physics at Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain). I then received a fully funded scholarship to read a Master of Advanced Studies in Astrophysics at the Institute of Astronomy, here in Cambridge. This is when I met my future Ph.D. supervisor, Professor Blake D. Sherwin. The sheer passion he transmitted in his Cosmology lectures was contagious, and this is what inspired me to join his research group in DAMTP. 

Cambridge hosts an astonishing breadth of research topics, all undertaken by incredible researchers. It is great to be exposed to such a great variety of ideas, areas of expertise, and methodologies. This exchange is facilitated really well, so every day I am learning something new! In addition, here at the University of Cambridge, every student is associated with a college. In my opinion, the collegiate life and the community it brings is one of the highlights of studying here.

It is actually extremely difficult to describe what a typical "day in the life" of a PhD student looks like, because each day is completely different to any other! During term time, my day comprises a combination of my own research, reading about the research of others, teaching small groups of undergraduates, lectures or seminars, research group meetings, doing outreach or preparing for talks when needed. I also spend a fair amount of time doing less exciting activities such as dealing with emails or applying for research or travel grants. The flexibility of my day-to-day life also means that I am able to take one or two days off if I have family or friends visiting.

In December 2022, I was the first prize winner of the WONNOW Women in Science and Technology Awards, founded by Caixa Bank and Microsoft Iberia to promote female talent in STEM areas. I did not know this at the time, but the award became an incredible platform to bring my research to a broader audience. I appeared in numerous regional newspapers and was interviewed on Spanish National Radio to discuss women in science. Furthermore, I was added to Mujeres en Ciencia e Innovación's list of award-winning scientists. I was incredibly happy to share my research with the public and use it as a tool to inspire the younger generations. It makes my work all the more meaningful.

Outside of term time, I always take the opportunity to attend different conferences or workshops where I can interact with the scientific community and present my research to them. In addition, last year I returned to my hometown as an invited speaker to the first Soapbox Science event in Spain. Soapbox Science events transform public spaces into a place where anyone can interact first-hand with scientists. It was a fantastic opportunity to share the science I love with the people I love. 

This year, you will find me at the 73rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting! I am extremely excited to put my research into a whole new perspective thanks to this Meeting, to discuss education among the younger generations and to learn new ways to promote wider recognition for science and research. 

For more than 70 years, since 1951, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings have supported the exchange of ideas between different generations, scientific disciplines and cultures. This year, 650 young scientists (including me!) from 93 nations will have the chance to meet over 30 Nobel Laureates in an informal setting and use these personal interactions as inspiration for our future careers. This year's programme revolves around various topics in physics that are particularly relevant to society at large: solutions for the future of energy supply; the potential and impact of artificial intelligence; and a broader discussion of basic and applied research on quantum physics.

The values that have shaped my career closely align with the mission of Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings (Educate, Inspire, Connect). It will be an honour to participate in this year’s meeting and continue fostering these values. It will be an incredible opportunity to be inspired by the greatest minds in Physics, fellow young scientists, and the whole Lindau community. I am really looking forward to connecting with like-minded scientists, learning from the comprehensive scientific programme the Lindau Meeting offers, and taking that learning forward to both the scientific community and the public once the event is over.