An interview with Claire Davies

Name: Claire Daviesdsc_8937-claire-davies

Current Job: Post-doctoral Research Fellow

Scientific Discipline/Field: Astronomy

Country: UK

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q,+, etc.): I would always use “gay” or “queer” (depending on the possible sensitivities of a particular audience to the latter term) rather than “lesbian” as a descriptor of my sexual orientation but I guess “L” is my letter.


Twitter or other social media handle: @Tuffers_c

What does your job involve?

A wide variety of things. I primarily develop ways to analyse data extracted from different astronomical observational techniques with an application to star and planet formation. Specifically, I focus on the techniques of optical/infrared interferometry and scattered light/polarisation imaging. The tools I develop include automated data reduction pipelines (to get the data into a useable format), semi-automated database querying scripts, analytical modelling suites, and Monte Carlo Radiative Transfer tools which are used to simulate the passage of light through a medium (such as the disk of dust and gas that exists around a star as it forms). Apart from my research, I also forged a link with Exeter City Council’s Community Builders project to bring stargazing nights to local parks in and around the city. There are typically two of these a year: one in winter and one in the summer. You might also catch me giving talks to astronomy societies and after-school groups. I also represent Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences within the LGBTQ+ staff network at the University of Exeter and, reciprocally, act as LGBTQ+ rep on the Department of Physics & Astronomy’s Inclusion Group which looks at improving equity and inclusion among typically under-represented groups.

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I wasn’t aware that the job I presently do even existed before I was about 20 so this has by no means been a straightforward path. But if we break it down into stepping stones (with the ability of hindsight), to be a post-doctoral researcher I had to first obtain a doctoral degree (i.e. a PhD) – I undertook research for my PhD in Astronomy at the University of St Andrews – and, before this, an undergraduate degree – I did an undergraduate masters in Physics with Astrophysics at the University of Birmingham. I want to emphasise that I’ve been lucky in my progress to this point and there’s been a few changes of direction. I didn’t get my first or second choice PhD positions, for instance, and my first post-doctoral job was literally my last attempt to bag an academic job after over a year’s worth of failed applications.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

Yes. I originally chose to go to Birmingham for my undergraduate degree because even the physics department celebrated the multi-cultural nature of the city of Birmingham (including the gay village). Since then, the degree to which I could be “out” at work and in the wider society in which I would live has affected my choices in terms of which countries (and areas of the UK) I would be willing to work in. And, most recently, I’ve got a two-body problem to sort out – ensuring my relationship with my partner would be recognised for immigration purposes.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

I’ve had to do my fair share of educating which I guess is something I did half-anticipate. Like being “out” at work kind of made me a spokesperson on LGBTQ+ issues. I feel that at least we have some LGBTQ+ representation but I’m still surprised it’s me. I’ve had to do (and still do do) a lot of reading-up on things: both STEM-related and more widely. That’s not always recognised. And I’m still not convinced it gets taken into account as much by funders or promotion committees as if I’d spent the same amount of time on my scientific research.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated.)?

I grew up first and foremost a football fan so my role models were the likes of Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler. Theirs would be the names I’d shout when scoring a goal. You don’t really get that in STEM. The closest you might get is maybe channelling Archimedes and shouting “Eureka” when something works as a kid – especially if, like me, you had fond memories of school trips to the Eureka science museum in Halifax. Thanks to Section 28 being in operation throughout my schooling, LGBTQ+ role models were hard to come by too. I think the first successful/famous woman who I knew to definitely be gay – i.e. it wasn’t just a rumour or comment placed on someone due to a less-than-typically feminine appearance – was Clare Balding. I don’t really remember having anyone LGBTQ+ to look up to until I got to University. And, even then, it was mainly to people either a couple of years older than me or who had lived in areas where they had been able to be more “out” than I’d been able to.

What are your plans for the future?

In my personal life, my partner and I got engaged last year so there’s a wedding on the cards in the (hopefully) not too distant future. We were hoping to get on the housing market beforehand but that plan has had to be put on hold due to lockdown. In work, I’m on the look-out for opportunities to work towards tenure and to further grow PRISM: the Exeter-based network for LGBTQ+ individuals working in STEMM (public and private sectors) that I founded back in 2018.

Anything else you’d like to add?

The LGBT STEM organisation, and the annual LGBT STEMinar series have been amazing little shining lights in what felt like my very heteronormative world of physics and astronomy. From my experiences in the UK education system, and from looking around me at other researchers, I had got the impression that to be a successful researcher and educator in STEM, there would be elements of me that I would have to keep to myself. The STEMinar showed me that this wasn’t the case, revealed to me why I thought this was the case, and provided me with people who I could turn to for support if and when I needed it.

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