Daisy Shearer - She/her
Physicist, Science Communicator, Writer & Educator
Which industry do you work in and what do you love and/or loathe about it?
I'm a physicist and I work primarily within the semiconductor industry, split between scientific research and technology (on the hardware development side of things for quantum technologies) for my PhD research project. I am also a physics/science educator, both in the higher education setting where I am a teaching assistant for physics undergraduate classes currently as well as more informally through science communication online and in-person at a local science centre (I do this on the weekends). I love working in research, especially as an applied physicist as it means I get to use my knowledge of theoretical quantum physics to help bridge the gap between theory and making new technologies. Sometimes I feel like a theorist, sometimes a computational physicist, sometimes a materials scientist and electrical engineer. I get to experience all of the aspects of developing new quantum-based technologies and think of myself very much as a translator between the theorists and the engineers. Related to this, I love translating complex physics and science concepts into accessible and engaging formats in my education and science communication work. I'm fascinated by how we can ensure that different brains can access all of this incredible knowledge that's generally locked up in the 'ivory tower'. I find that many people are intimidated by physics (especially quantum physics) and I want to try and help them see that it isn't as scary as they think and is actually super amazing. Since applied quantum mechanics is a long-standing special interest of mine (since I was around 15), I'm so thankful that all of my work relates to this topic and sharing my love of my interest with others whether it's laypeople or other scientists and engineers!
How did you get into your job/industry?
I did maths, physics and chemistry A-levels and wanted to do physics at university as some aspects of the subject had become special interests by the time I was doing A-levels. Unfortunately, I had a rough time in the sixth form and missed a lot of school. In retrospect, I think that this was in part due to my undiagnosed autism where I would use illness as an excuse not to go to school and deal with the anxiety of the social world and the sensory environment there. So I didn't get the grades I needed to get onto the integrated master's course at the University of Surrey I had my heart set on. I was lucky to be offered a place on their BSc in physics despite not quite reaching the grade requirements. I almost didn't take up the offer as I felt like such a failure but my parents persuaded me to go and see what happened. Despite some hard times with the transition and change of university, by the end of my second year, I had managed to achieve a high enough average grade to transfer from the BSc to the MPhys that I had initially applied for. So I got there in the end! The reason why I wanted to do the MPhys was mostly that you get to do a whole year of research for your master's thesis alongside taking some remote modules that year. I got an internship at a company called the Centre for Integrated Photonics (now Huawei Research and Development UK) where I was researching devices called electroabsorption modulated lasers which are used for telecoms. In layman's terms, I was helping develop ways to make the internet faster and I adored experimental research where I got to utilise quantum mechanical effects to create something useful. My colleagues during my placement encouraged me to look into doing a PhD in quantum technologies and that's what I did. I have been doing my PhD since 2018 and hope to finish my thesis and graduate this year. Since I started my PhD, I have been involved with science communication and teaching within higher education as a teaching assistant. I've found a love of communicating complex physics ideas in accessible ways and I've done a lot of reading around supporting neurodivergent and disabled students at university in terms of pedagogy. When I finish my PhD, I want to stay in quantum technologies but I'm very open to more of outreach, public engagement and educating roles alongside research. I have a strong online presence on my blog and Instagram (with an audience of over 18k) 'Notes from the Physics Lab' which I hope to continue to grow for science communication. I use these platforms to talk about all things physics, teaching, mental health and neurodiversity.
Have you always wanted to work in your industry?
I decided I wanted to do physics at uni towards the end of my GCSEs. When I embarked on my degree, I tried out lots of different modules to see what areas of physics I enjoyed the most but unsurprisingly my favourites were always those related to quantum mechanics in some way. So I loved learning about topics like electromagnetism, semiconductor physics, optics and photonics. These all closely link into quantum technologies so it was a bit of an easy decision to choose a placement in this area and subsequently pursue a career in the quantum technology industry.
Does it feel like a good 'fit' for you as a neurodivergent woman?
For me personally, it does. I think that the fact that I get to do in-depth research and communicate about one of my long-standing interests brings me a lot of joy! Physics is very male-dominated so I was always going to stick out a bit anyway and I knew that from the start. I do sometimes find it challenging to adapt to the world of academia as it isn't set up to support mental health and neurodivergent minds in a lot of ways. Luckily, my workplace at the university has been quite good at providing me with reasonable adjustments but I have struggled a lot with the uncertainty of the pandemic and inability to access the lab as consistently. I think that being a physicist, communicator and educator suits me very well as I get to really delve deep into topics that interest me and utilise many of my autistic traits like attention to detail, hyperfocus, and pattern recognition. Teaching and communicating also lets me tap into my creative and performance side. I also dabble in science writing which I really enjoy as the written word is my preferred way of communicating. I've written for Physics World and have been invited to write various guest blogs in the science blogging community.
Any anecdotes that you feel might be insightful?
Since my autism diagnosis in the final year of my degree, I've been learning to advocate for my own needs as well as the needs of others. An example is my request for reasonable adjustments in my confirmation viva (an oral exam after the first year of my PhD). I had it in a small and familiar room where I could close the blinds if needed (I did) and I took in plenty of fidget toys. This allowed me to reduce the sensory overwhelm that came from the environment during this exam so I could focus better. I've been told that our Doctoral College is now trying to implement more reasonable adjustments for PhD exams and one of my colleagues had some adjustments for his exam too. I feel that I am trailblazing for neurodivergent PhD students at my university, especially in my department. I am very vocal and open about being autistic and what my specific needs are and regular feedback to the uni's equality, diversity and inclusion team to try and bring about change to make the university more inclusive for neurodivergent students and staff. I have also started a neurodiversity network for staff at my uni where we can connect and support each other. I hope it continues to grow, provide support, and implement change after I finish my PhD and move on to another workplace.