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Advocacy, Inclusion and Unconventional Routes into Science: A Q&A with Dr. Clara Barker

Dr. Clara Barker, posing in front of some laboratory equipment.
Credit: Dr. Clara Barker.
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Read time: 7 minutes

Dr. Clara Barker is a materials scientist and laboratory manager at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Applied Superconductivity. Her current research focuses on using magnetron sputtering and pulsed laser deposition techniques to make thin-film, high-temperature superconductors.

Growing up in north Manchester, England, Clara initially left school following her GCSE exams and worked a variety of different jobs before deciding to further her education. A foundation course in engineering quickly became a degree in electronic and electrical engineering, followed by a PhD in materials science from the Manchester Metropolitan University.

After working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) in Switzerland for several years, Clara joined the University of Oxford where she is now a Daphne Jackson Trust research fellow and the laboratory manager of the university’s Centre for Applied Superconductivity.

Clara is a transgender woman and is also known for her involvement in a variety of initiatives that support women and LGBT+ people in STEM fields. Her advocacy has been recognized at the national level, receiving a Points of Light award in 2017 from the UK Prime Minister’s Office for her work with the “Out in Oxford” project. Clara is also the Dean for Equality and Diversity at Linacre College, Oxford, and was recently appointed as the Inclusion and Diversity Representative for the Institute of Physics. 

In this interview, Clara reflects on her journey so far and offers advice for other young women and girls who are interested in pursuing a career in physics, materials science or other STEMM subjects. 

Alexander Beadle (AB): Could you describe your current research focus for anyone who might be unfamiliar with your work?

Clara Barker (CB):  I'm a thin film materials scientist, with expertise in deposition processes. We’ve got thin films all around us – like on eyeglasses – but not everyone looks at them when we're putting them down. I make these films and look at the impacts that they have based on different deposition parameters.

For the last eight and a half years, I’ve worked in the Center of Applied Superconductivity. So now I’m making superconducting materials, concentrating on the thin film side of things. We have a couple of different projects, one of them is making thin-film high-temperature superconductors for use in smaller-scale fusion reactors, plus investigating what happens when you damage them and how to improve them as well. I’m also currently making thin-film superconductors that I’m turning into resonators for quantum devices. So that’s for quantum computing, for getting information in and out of qubits.

AB: What did your path to becoming a materials scientist look like?

CB: My career wasn’t the standard one – it was very odd. As a young person I was very excited about science and was by all accounts a high-flying student, but due to some physical and mental illness during my school years, I ended up dropping out of school before I did my A levels. I did various jobs, then signed up for a foundation course in Manchester where I was able to study engineering. From that, I went on to an electronic and electrical engineering degree and just really enjoyed it. In between my second and third years, I did a placement at a local company that made vacuum deposition equipment for thin film deposition. I spent 14 months working there – starting out in the electrical office and then moving to the workshop floor to see how the systems were built and tested.

Once I was involved with the testing, someone noticed that I had a “bit of an aptitude” for it and started me on the materials deposition side of things. I just really enjoyed it. When I finished my degree they offered me a position, but someone else within the company had recommended me for a PhD to a research group at Manchester Metropolitan University. I didn’t even know what a PhD was at the time! But it seemed like an opportunity worth doing and by then I just loved materials science. It’s such a hybrid of physics, chemistry and engineering, and I love working in these interesting groups where people have such diverse scientific backgrounds. It was a strange route to get here, but here I am.

AB: Your advocacy for women and LGBTQ+ people in STEM has also received significant recognition, including a Points of Light award from the UK Prime Minister’s Office and an Individual Champion/Role Model award at the University of Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Awards. Can you tell us more about this aspect of your work and what it means to you?

CB: Once I was in my PhD, the path didn’t stay linear for me. That was when I started to learn about being transgender and during my postdoctoral years, my gender dysphoria really started to hit me. I began to transition medically around that time, but there weren’t any other LGBT+ people around. When I changed my name, I noticed that companies that were previously interested didn’t want me anymore and I thought that was it.

In my head, I had made the decision that I was going to leave science – I had actually signed up for a conversion course thinking I could get a new degree, go into a different field and make a new start. But then this job came up as a laboratory manager in the lab that I’m currently in. I applied for it, honestly just to see how bad it was going to be. But they were so accepting.

It was a surprise to me! I was truly expecting to leave science. The truth is that I’d almost pushed myself out of science, just because I thought people like me couldn’t be scientists.

One day I was asked to give a talk about my journey so far and I had a student come up to me at the end – a second-year biology student – saying that they had never met another transgender scientist before, telling me that they had been about to quit because they didn’t think they could be a trans scientist. To me, that really showed the importance of this kind of thing because I had nearly left for the same reasons myself.

After that, I got involved with the university’s LGBT Advisory Group, of which I eventually became Chair, and later was invited to become the Dean of Equality and Diversity at one of the university’s colleges as well. I’m on the Royal Society’s Equality and Diversity Committee and I’ve been doing outreach projects with the Girls School Association and their Equality and Diversity Committee. I’ve presented a TEDx talk at the TEDxLondonWomen event a few years ago and, more recently, I took on the role of Inclusion and Diversity Representative for the Institute of Physics.

To me, what is really nice is that the learned societies are working on this. In fact, my current fellowship is sponsored by the Royal Society of Chemistry. These societies are paying attention now and it’s so heartening to see how much progress is being made across the board.

AB: What do you consider to be your proudest career achievement to date?

CB: Any time somebody comes to me and says that I was the first LGBT scientist or the first transgender scientist they’ve met. In the last six months, I’ve met two students who told me after I did a lab tour for them, that they decided they wanted to come and join the course after meeting me. I’ve met other students who have said that they’ve seen me on something and that it really inspired them. Sometimes I get messages from people saying that I’ve helped them realize they can have a future in STEM and it’s always really special.

It's one of those little things, but it really is those personal connections that just mean so much to me. It’s easy to see all the negatives sometimes, but those positive messages and the knowledge that what you are doing is creating an impact are just so important to me.

AB: What advice would you give young women, particularly LGBTQ+ women, who might be considering a career in STEM?

CB: It’s hard work but I think we’re at a stage right now where the schools can really make a difference, when we’re talking about younger ages. I’m pleased that there are so many schools, societies and organizations that are pushing to try to show that there are different scientists out there. I think it’s really important to have that visibility so that young people can come through.

I also think that there are some very astute young people out there. They know the world is imperfect, they know that there are still barriers. In university, in industry, there are definitely still barriers but it is getting better and it is improving. Every year that I’ve been involved, I’ve seen step changes and witnessed things moving forward.

One big thing that I like to tell people, if they have the ability to do it, is to be a part of the change. Do a little bit of research into the culture at your university department or your industry – we have so much information available these days – and find out if where you are is trying to make a difference. If you can, get involved in outreach and equality initiatives. If you have the time and the resilience to do it, try to be involved.

Everything that we do has an impact. Sometimes I see students come in and they’ll complain about something being done poorly, but then they graduate. Now I get to see those students and say that because of what you did, real change was made.

It’s going to be bumpy at times, and changes are still happening all the time, but I think right now we’re in a very positive time. At the end of the day, the more people that come into STEM every year, that means we’re going to have a better group of scientists and engineers and it means we’re going to have more ideas and more creativity for solving problems. I cannot wait to see the impact that these efforts now are going to have on our future. 

Dr. Clara Barker was speaking to Alexander Beadle, Science Writer for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee:

Dr. Clara Barker is a materials scientist and laboratory manager at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Applied Superconductivity. Barker is also the Dean for Equality and Diversity at Linacre College, Oxford, and was recently appointed as the Inclusion and Diversity Representative for the Institute of Physics.