Trinity’s Junior Research Fellows 2023 outline their research interests below.
Dr Geoffrey Kirsch, English Literature
I am a cultural historian of the nineteenth-century United States. With a PhD in English from Harvard and a JD from Harvard Law School, I focus on the intersections of literary and legal history.
At Trinity I will revise and publish my doctoral thesis, which examines how authors including Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry David Thoreau depict the changing economic and legal conditions of their time. I hope to begin two additional projects: a study tracing the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism on American constitutional law, and a history of Anglophilia in American literary and popular culture.
Dr Meeraal Shafaat-Bokharee, History
I am a historian of South Asia with an interest in how archives are created, maintained, shared, lost, and forgotten over time. My PhD examines the long-running contestations over ownership of the India Office collection (now held at the British Library) in the years following the partition and independence of India and Pakistan in 1947.
My thesis uses recently declassified official correspondence from the National Archives at Kew, private papers, and material available in the public domain to track the progress of the negotiations. It links the dispute over the India Office Library and Records to the histories of the changes in the accommodation and administration of the collection between 1947 and 1982, uncovers discarded options from this period regarding the future of the institution, and suggests a rethinking of existing interpretations of the evolution and development of partition historiography.
During my Fellowship, I will develop my PhD into a monograph, and look closely into similar lingering issues of contention which followed partition.
Dr Craig Walton, Earth Sciences
Earth’s 4.5 billion year history is a complex puzzle of Geology, Chemistry, and Biology, yet the picture remains incomplete. We lack rocks from the first 500 million years, leaving us with little evidence to probe the conditions that prevailed during planet formation or those that gave rise to life. I study meteorites, terrestrial rocks, and biogeochemical (the movement and transformation of chemical elements and compounds between living organisms, the atmosphere, and the Earth’s crust) systems to bridge this gap in our understanding.
Meteorites sample asteroids which preserve information about the state of the earliest Solar System. Terrestrial rocks archive the interplay of life and geology via their chemistry, spatial arrangement, and ages, helping us to unpick the tangled webs of cause-and-effect that drive changes in the Earth system. Using insights from the evolution of the Earth, we can begin to construct more general models of how inhabited worlds may change over time – a necessary step in the hunt for life in the cosmos.
During my Fellowship I will link insights from all three approaches to determine just how different Earth-like planets might be from one another, and how we should go about searching for them.
Here at Cambridge, my research is carried out in association with the Institute of Astronomy and the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe. I also hold a Research Fellowship at the Centre for the Origin and Prevalence of life at ETH Zürich, where I regularly conduct prebiotic chemistry experiments.
Dr Rebecca Field, English Literature
I am a medievalist working on contemplative practice in the late Middle Ages. My doctoral thesis focused on the concept of spiritual pedagogy in the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth-century manual for contemplation.
During my Fellowship, I will complete a monograph on the pedagogy and reception history of the Cloud-author – a central yet understudied figure in the Middle English mystical tradition. I will also work on a new project, entitled ‘Soundscapes of Contemplation’, which considers the importance of sound and silence to devotional practice in the Middle Ages. This latter project is partially practice-led, so I will produce reimagined ‘soundscapes’ at medieval monastic sites.
Dr Marcelo Campos, Pure Mathematics
I work on Combinatorics and Probability. More specifically my research concerns Ramsey theory. This is the study of the presence of ordered structures in large systems. One example of this phenomenon is Ramsey’s theorem.
It says that in any party, that is large enough, there are always, say, 1000 people who all know each other or 1000 people who all don’t know each other. The minimum number of people R(n) such that in every party this large there are n acquaintances or n strangers is called the n-th Ramsey number.
Despite appearing simple calculating how large must this party be has captured the attention of combinatorialists for the last 90 years. So if we want 3 stranger or 3 acquaintances, 6 people is always enough, but 5 is not always. If we want 4 strangers or 4 acquaintances, 18 people is always enough, but not 17. And then we don’t know the minimum number for 5 people, though we know it is between 43 and 48.
In 1935, Erdös and Szekeres showed an upper bound on the Ramsey numbers R(n) for all n. We (myself, Griffiths, Morris and Sahasrabudhe) gave the first exponential improvement on their bound. In order to do this, we found a more efficient algorithm to find groups of acquaintances or strangers in any party. This problem fits more broadly into understanding what type of structures can be found in networks and how to find these structures.
Dr Jeremy Schneider, History of Science
I am a historian of science, trained at Princeton University. My doctoral thesis charted how, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, “lost species” – French espèces perdues, German verlorene Arten – became the subject of natural history. Contrary to received views, my work showed that naturalists, scholars, and artisans discovered a “lost world” of nature within the fossils of ammonites several centuries before the Victorian fascination with the dinosaurs. This research has challenged a wide body of literature that frames the natural and man-made extinction of species as an exclusively modern form of awareness.
During my Fellowship, I will explore the wider consequences of this work for the history of the early modern world (1500-1800). In addition, I am embarking on a new book project, which tells the story of “blind science”. This work aims to recover the intellectual and material labour of visually impaired naturalists and engineers, artisans and sculptors, exploring how these diverse practitioners used their non-visual senses – sound, smell, and touch – to develop innovative techniques of empiricism.
Ryan Alweiss, Pure Mathematics
I am interested in combinatorics, a branch of Mathematics that deals with discrete structures. One thing that appeals to me is that there are many interesting problems arising from simple statements. One problem I have thought about a lot is the “sunflower conjecture” which concerns how many sets of a given size you can have before the emergence of a pattern called a “sunflower”: three sets that all share a common kernel and are otherwise disjoint. This innocent-sounding problem turns out to have many interesting and surprising connections to questions in Computer Science and other branches of Mathematics.
Recently I have become especially interested in problems involving colouring. One that I have done work on recently is Hindman’s conjecture. Given a colouring of the positive whole numbers in a finite number of colours, can one always find two numbers so that their sum, their product, and the two numbers themselves are the same colour? Despite the simple sounding nature of this question, it remains unsolved. Again, this is a combinatorial question, but it is related to other parts of Mathematics, including a branch of maths called dynamics.
Arjun Ashoka, Physics
When waves hit a rocky coastline, it is difficult to predict where the splash goes or if tide pools will form. Similarly, when waves of quantum probabilities of electrons encounter the disordered landscape of real materials, the physical phenomena that emerge can be rich and unpredictable.
Using a combination of theoretical techniques, ultrashort optical pulses and optical microscopes, I study these quantum processes in disordered materials. My work has ranged from imaging the formation of entangled electronic states in 3D to discovering that disorder can drive the ultrafast formation of spin-polarized electronic domains on very short length scales.
During my Fellowship I will develop a new approach to studying the effect of disorder that fluctuates with time. This kind of disorder is common in all materials as atomic positions are constantly fluctuating, appearing as specific vibrational modes, even at absolute zero (0K). Compared to their static counterparts (impurities, defects and dislocations) that can be removed, these vibrations are a permanent source of disorder, unavoidably modifying our physical picture. Historically, the effects of vibrational fluctuations have been studied through the temperature dependence of a material’s properties. By engineering precise, ultrafast atomic displacements and observing their effect on quantum mechanical phenomena in real time, I hope to uncover new phenomena and phases of matter that cannot be accessed through temperature alone.