Daisy Shearer is an experimental quantum physicist. She did her Master of Physics at the University of Surrey (United Kingdom), where she spent a year working at the Centre for Integrated Photonics on semiconductor lasers for telecommunications applications. Currently, she is doing a PhD in the field of quantum technology, specifically focusing on semiconductor spintronics. In the final year of her undergraduate degree, she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. As such, she is a voice for neurodivergent people, speaking openly about her own challenges and experience in academia and beyond.
*Daisy uses identity-first language in her responses below as this is her personal preference. For more information, please visit the Autistic Self Advocacy Network website.
What are the challenges you face as a woman in physics with autism?
Physics is a very male-dominated field, so I do always feel like I stick out a little, especially when I was an undergraduate student. I present fairly feminine, which goes against the stereotype of the traditional “physicist’ that I have perceived since a young child. I think because I do not feel like I am the kind of person who ‘belongs’ in physics, I am more susceptible to imposter syndrome and I have very low confidence in my own knowledge. This is changing though. There has been a big push towards gender equality in physics and consequently, as I progress through my career, I encounter more women in physics who I look up to and aspire to. I hope that we will see the same kinds of changes with other minority groups in the near future.
In terms of autism, it is a bit different as it is generally something invisible. I can hide my autistic traits (this is called ‘masking’ or ‘camouflaging’) around people I do not know. However, it does come at a large energy cost, which puts me at a higher risk of sensory overwhelm and subsequent meltdown or shutdown as well as impacting on my mental health. Before I opened up about my diagnosis with my colleagues and online, I felt the need to maintain this front of behaving as neurotypical as possible. Whereas now, I am starting to embrace my authentic self and my differences, while also appreciating things I have in common with my colleagues. I do think that in order to embrace diversity in all areas of modern life, we need to acknowledge and celebrate difference, but still remember that we are all human and have more similarities than we might first think.
I find people are often confused when they find out I am autistic as there is thought to be a difference in female presentation compared with the classical male presentation, which has been widely portrayed and stereotyped in media with autistic characters. Off-hand comments intended to be flattering, such as ‘you do not seem autistic to me’ or ‘I do not believe you are disabled’ can be hurtful. The main challenges I face as an autistic person are my communication (e.g. auditory processing delay, periods of being non-verbal, heavy preference for text-based communication) and sensory differences (i.e. inability to filter sensory inputs, hyper and hypo-sensitivity to sensory inputs). It can take time and effort to get colleagues on board, but luckily, I have become a strong self-advocate in the workplace and beyond. I try to pave the way for neurodivergent students who come after me, so they will have it easier. I would love to see the day where reasonable adjustments for disabled students and workers are not questioned or denied. Instead, support is taken on an individual basis coming from a place of empathy, rather than being essentialised, overly questioned and stereotyped.
QUICK FIRE ROUND
Who were your role models growing up?
My main role models were my parents, especially my dad as an academic role model. He has a PhD in immunology and lectures postgraduate students as well as doing CPD lectures, which I always found inspiring. Otherwise, I did not have many role models in physics that I could relate to growing up. My main role model was Emmy Noether, but I could not say that I related to her very much. I was in awe of the incredible work she achieved through her life and I want to emulate that in some way (but in the field of experimental physics, rather than theoretical physics and maths).
What advice would you give to aspiring neurodivergent scientists?
My main piece of advice would be to build a support network. If you can, try to access disability support as it can make such a difference just knowing that you have someone in your corner. It is because of my support network that I have been able to have enough confidence to develop my self-advocacy skills to a point where I am hopeful to have a career in research. I believe that diverse ways of thinking can catalyse amazing collaborative scientific progress and that includes neurominorities. Your neurotype can be a strength and with the right support, your challenges can be overcome.
What is your biggest achievement so far?
My biggest achievement is passing my degree with first class honours and being accepted onto a doctoral programme. During my undergraduate degree, I got many poor examination results that did not seem to match up to my academic ability. In retrospect, this is in part due to sensory issues, but at the time, I thought everyone experienced the world as I did. Therefore, I never thought that I was smart enough to pursue a PhD. Luckily, I always did extremely well in coursework, where I was able to work in an environment that suited me better.
I am currently working on the first paper to be published in an academic journal and I suspect that this will become my biggest achievement once it has gone through the peer review process!