Award-winning early-career physicist is put in the spotlight

13 August 2015

The Institute of Physics (IOP) has decided to give a fuller picture of its Early Career Award winners through profiles of each of them, and the first of these focuses on Clare Burrage.

Clare Burrage

The IOP presents three Early Career Awards each year to physicists who are in the first 12 years of their professional lives, allowing for career breaks – the Maxwell Medal and Prize, the Moseley Medal and Prize and the Paterson Medal and Prize.

This year the Maxwell Medal and Prize, which is given for outstanding contributions to theoretical, mathematical or computational physics, has been awarded to Clare Burrage, a theoretical physicist whose research currently focuses on the search for dark energy.

Burrage is a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Proleptic Lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham and was previously Anne McLaren Research Fellow in the school’s Particle Theory Group.

She has also held postdoctoral fellowships in the Cosmology Group at the University of Geneva and in the Theory Group at DESY in Germany. The title of her PhD was “Scalar Fields and the Accelerated Expansion of the Universe”, which she completed in 2008 at the University of Cambridge following an MA in maths and an MMath there.

The IOP asked how she started out in physics and about the path she has taken up until this point.

What made you want to do physics and/or maths in the first place – has it been an interest since you were a child?

I’ve enjoyed maths for as long as I can remember – there’s something very pleasing about the way equations slot together. I didn’t particularly enjoy physics at school, mainly because my experiments rarely worked and I seemed to always choose the pieces of equipment that were faulty.

But I do remember driving past the Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank when we went to visit my grandparents and thinking how amazing it was that people had built something so big and so beautiful to stare up at the sky. I think that was the beginnings of my love of cosmology.

You started out by studying maths, moving on to a PhD in physics. Did you originally intend to be a mathematician rather than a physicist? How do you see yourself now in that regard, or is it impossible to be pigeon-holed as one or the other?

Yes, I did maths for my undergraduate degree – as I said I didn’t enjoy experimental physics at school and never really considered doing it for my degree. I only took A-level physics because I was told that it would be useful for a maths degree.

I wanted to do maths at university because it was a subject I enjoyed and was relatively good at, and because I thought I stood a good chance of getting a well-paid and stable job at the end. It never occurred to me that I would go on to do research; it was just not on my radar. But as I went through my degree I found I really enjoyed the mathematical physics aspects, and so I stayed on to do a master’s, and then a PhD, and now I’m still here!

I see myself now as a theoretical physicist; to me mathematics is a tool that can be used to understand the universe. A mathematician would be more interested in understanding how the maths itself works. But the line between the two subjects is a blurry one, and as a physicist you can never know too much maths!

The emphasis of your research appears to have shifted from theory to experiment – or is that a false distinction for you? In which direction do you see yourself going in the future?

My main interest has always been in testing current theories of cosmology. I think that’s become more of a focus as I’ve been able to determine my own research direction, but it’s always been what I wanted to do. I don’t do any of the experiments myself, and I wouldn’t have the skills to do that anyway. But I love working at the interface of theory and experiment – it gives me the opportunity to explore so many different branches of physics. Talking to both sets of people, theorists and experimentalists, is also really rewarding.

You have been involved in public outreach (e.g. MP-Scientist pairing, I’m a Scientist, SET for Britain) – did you enjoy these activities, and do you intend to be involved in the future? How far will you be able to do so as you pursue your research career?

The general public pay for our research and so they deserve to hear about what we do. I really enjoy doing outreach, and I definitely intend to keep doing it. I get fantastic questions every time I talk to people about my research, and their enthusiasm for understanding how the universe works is a great reminder of why it is important to keep trying to find out more.

In the future I expect it will only get harder to balance all of the different demands on my time, but I enjoy doing outreach so much (as well as thinking that it’s important) that I know that I will carry on doing at least some. I am lucky that at Nottingham the department really sees the value of outreach, and is very supportive of what I’ve been doing.

I’m also aware that I’m not a “stereotypical physicist” and I think there’s value in the public seeing a variety of different faces talking about science.

Other events I’ve been involved in include giving a talk at the Edinburgh international Science festival in 2014 and taking part in a panel discussion organised by the Royal Society at the Hay Festival this year. Next year I’ll be taking part in a “Science Alive” event organised by the British Council in Hong Kong. I’ve also made two videos for the Sixty Symbols YouTube channel.

Similarly, you are on the diversity committee at Nottingham and you have written an online article about the need for more girls to choose physics – do you intend to go on being involved in diversity issues, and how much time can you devote to this?

Yes, diversity in physics is an issue that I care very much about and something that I definitely intend to continue to try to address. I sit on the physics diversity committee at Nottingham and also on the diversity committee of the Royal Society.

It is still very difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it how the continual small difficulties associated with being an “outsider” add up to a significant problem. Things are obviously much better today than they were for the previous generation of researchers. My PhD supervisor (Prof. Anne-Christine Davis) was the first woman to be made a Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 2002, and she had to deal with challenges that I am very grateful that I will never face. But that doesn’t mean that the current situation is acceptable. Women and people from less affluent backgrounds are under-represented in physics at all levels from A-level onwards, which represents both a loss of talent from the physics community and a limiting of opportunities for people from those groups.

The IOP recently published a report that highlighted the difficulties faced by PhD students and postdocs – did you find life as a PhD challenging, and do you have any advice or encouragement for other people at that stage in their careers?

Postdoc life is tough; I moved internationally three times in four years between getting my PhD and coming to Nottingham. That’s emotionally exhausting and takes a toll on your personal life that means you don’t necessarily have a support network nearby. Living abroad is exciting, and I had a great time in both Hamburg and Geneva, but it’s the combination of not knowing which country you are going to be living in next year, not having much of a choice over where you go, and knowing that it’s only going to be a short term position that takes the toll.

My advice would be to think carefully about whether that is a lifestyle that will work for you, and to consider which areas of your life you want to prioritise and where you might be prepared to make compromises. (Actually I think that’s good to do before embarking on any career). There are no right or wrong answers, and no one else can make the decision for you, but it helps to think about what are the things you actually want, and what are the things that you only feel like you’re supposed to want.

For me it was also helpful to have decided that if I hadn’t found a longer term position by a certain point in time I was going to leave the field. Knowing that postdoc life was temporary one way or the other helped me to get through the difficult times.

In terms of the choices you have made, and other than your innate ability, what has led to your success so far in research? Is it just “luck”, or have there been strategic decisions that have helped?

I think what helped me was that around the end of my PhD I found an area (astrophysical and laboratory tests of models of dark energy) that wasn’t being studied much by other people, but that was exciting to me.  It was a combination of finding my niche, and good luck with the timing, because around that time theories of dark energy were starting to become of more interest because a number of cosmological surveys were funded to study the late universe. This has led to the field growing enormously in the last decade.

Why do you think you were chosen to receive the Maxwell Medal and Prize?

I’m very honoured to have been chosen.  It’s impossible for me to guess how the panel made their decision, but I think they may have liked the fact that I can connect theory with experiment, and also that I have an agenda in my research that is recognisably my own.

Your citation mentions “the development of methods of testing for fifth forces” – is it possible to explain what these are, in simple terms?

A fifth force is any extra force that might arise from new physics, beyond the four forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong forces) that we know. Quantum mechanics teaches us that there are two classes of particle: those that make up matter (these have half-integer spin) and those that transmit forces (these have integer spin). Any new physics that introduces new particles of the second type will give rise to potentially observable new forces.

What do you find the most interesting aspect of your research, or is all of it interesting?

I think the most exciting thing is understanding how the very large and the very small are connected together by the same theories, and that by studying one you can learn more about what happens to the other.