STEM Up: Daisy Shearer

Hello! I’m Daisy and I’m an experimental quantum physics PhD candidate at the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute.

I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember, although I also have a passion for art and was torn between pursuing art or science as a career. I eventually settled on science and opted to keep my creative pursuits as hobbies. What I’ve come to realise is that to be a scientist and a researcher you need to be creative so that side of me comes in handy when I’m solving problems and designing new experiments. Once I’d decided to do science I then had to decide which one! I knew I had more interest in the physical sciences and as physics was my favourite subject from when I was 16, I opted to do a physics degree.

During the later years of high school, I had a lot of trouble with socialising and developed major depressive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder. It wasn’t until near the end of my degree that I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and my challenges since high school began to make sense. I now have autism-specific support at my university and speak openly about the challenges and strengths of being autistic. During my degree, I had the opportunity to do a year of research for my master’s project so I applied to be a research and development intern at the Centre for Integrated Photonics where I worked on designing and testing semiconductor lasers for telecommunications applications. After graduating from my MPhys, I applied to do PhDs in quantum technologies and I started my PhD in 2018 working on a project on ‘development of InSb quantum point contacts for quantum technology applications’. I absolutely love my research and regularly talk about it as well as my experience as an autistic person in STEM and academia on social media and my blog.

1.What is your specific area of STEM?

My current sub-field is semiconductor spintronics. This falls under the larger field of quantum technologies. These fields are quite interdisciplinary with physicists, materials scientists, engineers and chemists all working within it. I approach my work from the perspective of experimental quantum physics, so I get to delve into the fundamental quantum physics phenomenon as well as looking at the fabrication and engineering side of things. 

2.How would you explain your STEM field?

Semiconductor spintronics is a field which looks at exploiting electron spin in semiconductor materials for quantum technology applications. Let me break down all that jargon a bit: Semiconductors are a group of materials which can sometimes behave like a conductor and sometimes like an insulator. They have highly ‘tunable’ properties and are the materials used in most technology these days. All of the transistors and other components in your phone and computer are made from predominantly semiconductor materials. They also make up a lot of the telecommunications infrastructure as semiconductors can be used to make lasers and other optical devices such as LEDs. Spintronics is short for ‘spin transport electronics’ and it essentially is an extension of electronics. In electronics, we use the charge of electrons in materials to make technology and spintronics extends that to include an additional degree of freedom: spin. One of the most interesting applications of spintronics is in quantum computing where it is a key concept for solid-state electron spin qubits. My current research looks at ways to produce a current of electrons with a particular spin state using nanostructures made from semiconductor quantum wells which can be used to initialize spin-based qubits.

3.What are some challenges you face in this field?

It’s a very new field so there are still lots of things we don’t know. But in a way, this is what makes it exciting! More generally, I have some challenges with my communication and processing differences due to being autistic but I’m developing great self-advocacy skills to enable me to work to the best of my ability (and this isn’t really a field-specific challenge, just more of a general life challenge).

4.What made you choose this STEM discipline? Were you inspired by someone?

My decision to get into quantum physics comes from a class in high school. In chemistry, we were learning about electron shells in atoms and the concept of electron spin was mentioned. I instantly became fascinated with what this meant and asked my teacher who told me to ask a physics teacher. I did and since then had a fascination with quantum physics and the concept of spin. In fact, applied quantum physics is one of my longest-standing autistic ‘special interests’ which is why I am so drawn to it as a career. I’ve also been very inspired by the incredible Emmy Noether since high school and find her to be such a role model for trailblazing women in physics and mathematics.

5.What’s the best way to enter your field?

I don’t think there is one particular ‘best’ route for anything really. If you want to be a quantum physicist I do think you need a good grounding in physics– whether that is a degree or an apprenticeship (for example, the National Physical Laboratory offers science apprenticeships). 

6.What are some really cool things that people in your profession work on?

There’s always so much amazing research coming out of quantum technology! Probably the most notable is the recent work from Google reaching ‘quantum supremacy’. Although there is a lot of hype around it, we still have a long way to go (decades probably) until we see anything resembling a functioning, commercially viable quantum computer.

7.What keeps you going in your profession?

Knowing that I am part of the research effort towards new technologies which help advance progress in a whole host of disciplines. 

8.What are your future career goals?

I would like to be working in quantum technology R&D, whether that is in academia or industry. I’d also like to develop my science communication freelance work so that I can help educate people on physics online as well as raise awareness about topics I’m passionate about such as making STEM more accessible to disabled people. 

9.What is the biggest challenge you face as a woman in STEM?

I stick out within my research group due to my gender. I hope that in the future this isn’t the case but not many women progress to senior positions in physics and I’m very aware of that. Sometimes there are comments about my gender which strike me as odd because surely the most important thing about my academic work is the quality of my research, not my gender!

10.What message would you like to give to our young readers?

If you have a passion for STEM then go for it. Contrary to stereotypes, you don’t need to be anything apart from curious, determined and have a thirst for knowledge to work in STEM fields!

Thank you for reading our seventh STEM Up interview! To know more about what Daisy is up to, follow her journey at @notesfromthephysicslab

Follow us on Instagram for more women in STEM interviews at codejammies

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Until next time!

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