New PhD researchers appointed as Freer Prize Fellows at the Royal Institution

Three history of science PhD researchers have been named today as the latest to be awarded a Freer Prize Fellowship at the Royal Institution.

The facade of the Royal Institution building
Image credit: Tim Mitchell

Vanessa da Silva Baptista from University College London, Sarah Hijmans from Université Paris-Cité, and Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh from Cambridge University, were chosen for the award from a field of international applications.

It is the only the second time that Philip Freer Studentship Trust funding for PhD students has been awarded through a competitive process, designed to bring the very best research projects to fruition. Each Fellow will now complete the final year of their PhD research with support from the Royal Institution (Ri) and funding from the Philip Freer Studentship Trust.

The award of just three Fellowships follows a competitive application process open to leading PhD researchers from around the world. Each new Prize Fellow was required to demonstrate high academic merit combined with insights into present day challenges and a clear contribution to shaping equitable and sustainable futures. Applications were assessed by a panel of highly-respected scholars in the field of history of science.

Katherine Mathieson, Director of the Royal Institution, said: “We are very proud of our rich heritage of scientific discovery at the Ri, and acutely aware that there is still so much we can learn from the past.

“I am delighted that the fascinating research projects of our new Freer Prize Fellows are all shedding new light on our understanding of science and scientific exploration.”

Dr Sophie Forgan, a Trustee of the Philip Freer Studentship Trust, said: “The Philip Freer Studentship Trust was established to support postgraduate students in making a difference in the world and that begins by engaging the public with compelling, research-based conclusions.

“Following the success of our first open competition for these prestigious Ri Freer Prize Fellowships, I am delighted to see applications grow again, from more research students from more diverse locations. The result is three outstanding Fellows whose work at the Ri has the potential to make a significant contribution to public engagement with science.”   

The Ri Freer Prize Fellowships have a direct connection to the Ri’s internationally significant collection of scientific apparatus, books and manuscripts, with each fellow linking their work to Ri heritage when communicating their research to the public.

University College of London researcher Vanessa da Silva Baptista – the first of her family to study at University – argues that a popular understanding and appreciation of magic tricks, particularly small chemical tricks as a form of domestic play and popular science, led to a general engagement with science and scientific principles in the Middle Ages. Vanessa’s research argues that the democratisation of the acquisition of, and experimentation with, scientific knowledge should be celebrated not only as a historical curiosity but as a modern-day aspiration.

Université Paris-Cité researcher Sarah Hijams focuses on controversies surrounding the nature of specific elements, to shed new light on the way in which historically chemists, including the Ri’s Humphry Davy, determined whether or not substances could be seen as elements. The examples of chemical element identification Sarah studies illustrate that concepts such as the chemical element cannot be grasped in a single definition. Even today, despite being one of the most fundamental notions of chemistry, this concept is still surrounded by ambiguity and the study of historical cases might help improve our understanding of the concept of chemical element today.

Cambridge University’s Gianamar Giovannetti Singh’s PhD seeks to diversify the history of science, revealing that there were many people who helped make the sciences, beyond the European men we know so much about. Answering questions such as who makes scientific knowledge and where does science come from, Gianamar redefines the history of science that focuses on a remarkably narrow cast of characters from a limited geographical scope and proves that much as it is today, science in the early modern world was both a global and a collaborative endeavour.

The three Ri Freer Prize Fellows will take up their position at the Ri from 1 October 2022.