What is your scientific background?
I applied to do an MPhys degree at the University of Surrey but didn’t quite get the A-level grades due to stress-induced physical illness and the deterioration of my mental health. I was offered a place on the BSc course and ‘upgraded’ onto the MPhys course at the end of my second year. This meant I got to do a research placement in an industry setting where I would carry out the research for my dissertation. I spent 9 months working as an intern at the Centre for Integrated Photonics where I designed, tested, modelled and improved high-speed electroabsorption modulated lasers for use in long haul telecommunications. In July 2018 I graduated with first-class honours and was offered a PhD position working in the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute in quantum computing research.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I have always been fascinated with the world around me and how things work. I think this innate curiosity is the main thing which drove me towards science. I enjoyed both arts and sciences at school which made it difficult to choose which path to pursue. When I realised how creative scientists need to be, especially when doing research, that’s what drew me in.
How did you choose your field of study?
Physics was always my favourite subject when I was in high school. I decided to do a straight physics degree as I didn’t know what specific area of physics I wanted to continue to study as a career. Through my undergraduate degree, two things became clear: I have a flair for experimental physics and my interest is in quantum technologies and nanophotonics, so that’s what I pursued for my PhD!
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
My PhD project is in the field of ‘semiconductor spintronics’ and is focused on ‘the initialization of spin states in InSb qubits using quantum point contacts’. To break it down, I’m finding new ways to control the orientation of what we call ‘electron spin’. This is the property of intrinsic angular momentum found in all particles. In the case of electrons, they can only have a spin quantum number of 1/2 and -1/2. So that’s two ‘spin states’ we can choose between. It gets complicated when you learn that in quantum mechanical systems, electrons can take both spin values at once (called a ‘superposition’ of states). Quantum mechanical systems break down as soon as you interact with them which makes measuring and manipulating quantum states a huge challenge. But by harnessing all this quantum mechanical weirdness we could build a quantum computer which could theoretically process data at exponentially higher rates than conventional computers can now. This has many implications and possible applications ranging from advanced AI to quantum cryptography.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
My biggest achievement is getting into my PhD program. I never thought I would be able to become a physics researcher and study such fascinating topics every day. I get a thrill knowing that I am contributing to our cumulative knowledge of the physical world! As well as this, my outreach activities are a big achievement in my eyes. These include my Instagram page ‘notesfromthephysicslab’ as well as more local projects such as ‘the quantum garden’ which was a project I proposed, designed and managed where we built a garden in the local area based around so of my group’s quantum technologies research.
My biggest failures include not achieving my predicted A-level grades and the various scholarships I have applied for and not made the cut. But despite this, I have still been awarded several scholarships and I’m slowly building a reputation in my field. Failure is all part of life and important for learning and growing as a person and a scientist. I’m sure my future will involve many, many more rejections and ‘failures’ but really these experiences are part of being a scientist. I have yet to meet someone who has never had a paper they submitted rejected! These things are an opportunity to make our work even better.
What is a typical day like for you?
As a researcher, I don’t really have a ‘typical day’. My working day usually involves a mixture of working in the lab with our superconducting magnet, fabricating devices in the cleanroom, using the focused ion beam, lots of coding for experimental control, data acquisition, data analysis and modelling, reading literature, writing my thesis and of course many, many cups of tea.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
Feeling like I stick out. Both as a woman in physics and as an openly autistic person, I am somewhat of an anomaly at our research institute. This makes it difficult to assert myself and my ideas in meetings, but I’m slowly growing more confident in this regard. I think everyone in science, especially women, suffer from imposter syndrome. The best thing we can do is acknowledge the feelings and understand that almost everyone experiences it too.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
I doubt my abilities as a scientist all the time. As I mentioned, imposter syndrome is something I deal with regularly. Part of the reason for this is that I do not look like what society taught me a physicist looks like growing up. I feel like a fraud often, but then I realise that the feeling of not knowing something is in some ways what a researcher should feel like. We are pushing the boundaries of knowledge so of course, we are going to feel lost and confused all the time!
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
I’m always motivated by my fascination with my work. I am very lucky in that my research aligns perfectly within one of my autistic special interests (experimental quantum physics) so I am incredibly driven to know everything about it! I am also motivated by my family. I want to make them proud of what I achieve in life.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
I hope to be an established researcher in quantum technologies (hopefully with some publications under my belt!). The field is advancing so rapidly that I’m sure that in 10 years a functional, commercially scalable quantum computer will be on the horizon and I want to be part of that, even if it’s only in my own tiny way.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
I’m really into gardening and enjoy growing vegetables. I am an avid baker and can often be found in the kitchen experimenting with cake recipes. I also have a professional scuba diving qualification (PADI Divemaster) and absolutely adore being underwater.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
Don’t give up and try not to worry about what other people think about you.
What are your biggest obstacles?
Keeping a good work-life balance and managing my anxiety and depression as well as being autistic which comes with its own set of day-to-day challenges. I have learnt that I need to be a strong self-advocate for my needs and ask my colleagues to adapt to how I communicate and process the world around me rather than forcing myself to be constantly masking my autism. We meet half-way and it means I have a lot more energy and can be more productive! Asking for reasonable adjustments can be really daunting, but with the right allies, they really do make the world of difference.
Doing a PhD can be quite lonely but luckily, I have a great support system with lots of people checking in on my mental health regularly. The social side of attending conferences and the other ‘networking’ events can also be challenging and fatiguing due to being autistic. Despite this, I’ve always found it worthwhile to put myself out there and push myself a little.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?
More diverse role models! My idea of what a physicist looks like would be very different if I had been exposed to more female physicists as a child. There is so much proof that women (and other minority groups in STEM) can be incredible scientists. The more diverse the STEM workforce becomes, the less intimidating it becomes for those of us part of those minority groups and we can do better science with more diversity of thought.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?
In December 2018 I decided to start sharing snippets of my day-to-day life as a PhD student on Instagram. Since then, I’ve been sharing my life as a scientist and have grown a community of over 10,000 people. This has since prompted the recent creation of a ‘notesfromthephysicslab’ blog and youtube channel where I talk in more detail about my work, physics in general and being a PhD student. I cherish my little community and hope that more people share their day-to-day life as a researcher with others as it helps ‘pull back the curtain’ for people and encourages trust in scientists as well as showing that we’re just people too! We’re not lone geniuses hunched over a lab bench all day. Science is collaborative and creative and brilliant, and anyone can be a scientist if they want to!
My experiences on social media have also lead me to help start an Instagram and Twitter account called ‘neurodivergent in STEM’ which highlights, promotes and celebrates neurodivergent people working in STEM fields. You can find our pages here and here.
You can find Daisy on Twitter @DaisyShearer and @QuantumDaisy, and on instagram @notesfromthephysicslab. More information on her work can be found on her website and blog.