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Clara Cafolla-Ward: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2023

Clara is invested in a progressive area of condensed matter physics that could contribute to giant steps forward in quantum – the fund is allowing her to level the playing field.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

My area of research is condensed matter physics and I’m studying the quantum dynamics of frustrated spin systems with a high-frequency susceptibility probe. Put simply, I look at small crystals at low temperatures that display something called “magnetic frustration”. Frustration happens when lots of competing interactions mean the lowest energy state is not unique.

Susceptibility measures a material’s magnetic response when a magnetic field is applied to it. My research group developed a unique high-frequency dynamic susceptibility probe that works down to very low temperatures, as low as -217C. Our significant contribution extends the frequency range by a factor of 100, enabling us to access previously unseen dynamics. This instrument is significantly cheaper than comparable techniques and is straightforward to perform and interpret.

Getting to investigate interesting exotic quantum materials and contributing to research with international academic implications is really invigorating!

What drew you to this area of physics?

All along the way, many important people have recognised my interest and encouraged me to pursue physics.

I’ve always been different and proud of it. I love reading and learning and am forever asking “why?”. Science has been a natural inclination. Experimenting and questioning is my default setting. My first introduction to science was a book called Dealing With Dirt. I was fascinated with how dirt actually interacted with soap and the idea that it happened on such a small scale.

At secondary school I was introduced to the book Six Easy Pieces by Richard P Feynman – and it was like my mind exploded. It introduced me to the idea that our reality is like a game of chess that we’re trying to infer the rules of.

I had a natural inclination towards experimental physics and I’ve had good tutors along the way who encouraged me. I love looking closely at things and trying to understand how the physical world around us works. Condensed matter physics lets me delve into the detail of what goes on at the atomic level.

What is the potential impact of your work?

My work has contributed to the understanding of certain materials which display novel magnetic behaviour.

In the short term, measurements into a material called “spin ice” allow better understanding of monopole dynamics. The higher frequency limit extends previous data in the literature so the behaviour can be fully observed. Measurements into other frustrated materials show a purely quantum mechanical response that we can measure using a classical measurement.

In the long term, this instrument is capable of probing materials at higher frequencies in a simple way that reveals unique information. This is essential for fully understanding materials for uses like quantum computing.

What does winning the scholarship mean to you – and what difference will it make?

I’m very grateful. I’m a naturally private person, so I had to be encouraged to apply.

I love doing my PhD. While the road to a PhD has been difficult, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. My aim from primary school was to become a “proper doctor”. The experience has in turns been challenging, frustrating, provocative, devastating and elating. I’ve had many breakdowns along the way, but at no point have I reached the point of wanting anything else. It’s the biggest challenge I have had to face and I love who I’ve become because of it. I’ve gone from being a shy shadow into a confident researcher.

This fund will make a huge difference as I have no other means of financially supporting myself. Throughout my PhD, my time has been impacted by my period and my dyslexia. I essentially lost a week’s worth of work a month. This fund helps level the playing field and attain my potential.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

I’ve been fortunate. Every important person in my life has always been supportive and instrumental in my achieving anything. Not everyone is as lucky. Most institutions are designed to support stereotypical norms. The people who benefit from this are not at fault, but everyone bears responsibility to help change the fundamental architecture, something this grant does by promoting non-conformist role models. I’ve experienced support from many people, those who fit the stereotypes and those who don’t, and I wouldn’t have reached this point in my career without them.

My period, dyslexia and social anxiety have been the main barriers. My period has been an issue since secondary school. It has always impacted my studies as I cannot do anything in these days. There is no institution support – it’s not recognised and there are no policies in place to support me. Having won the award, this has highlighted the effect periods have on a student’s study and this needs to be recognised and supported instead of ignored.

“Every individual has their own experience and perspective that creates a unique and valuable contribution. Physics challenges all assumption – to do this, it requires a variety of perspectives.”

With my dyslexia, I’ve always struggled with organisational skills, spelling and extended writing. All my life, I’ve had to create strategies to overcome any shortcomings. As a result, I’m an autodidact. I’ve also always been shy and went out of my way to avoid people. I’ve only recently developed in confidence.

What would you say to those who have also faced barriers to following their dreams to pursue physics at university and beyond?

The main barrier towards achieving anything is convincing yourself you can. Throughout my journey, this belief has often wavered. It’s only though my connections to other people that I’ve achieved anything at all. I failed my first year at university due to my social anxiety. My parents are the only reason I picked myself up and started again. As I progressed through my degree, I connected with like-minded people and started making connections. I started feeling like I belonged. So surround yourself with people who believe in you, and that includes yourself.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Diversity of thought is important for any rigorous debate. Every individual has their own experience and perspective that creates a unique and valuable contribution. Physics challenges all assumption – to do this, it requires a variety of perspectives. Thus the drive towards understanding our physical reality requires a diversity of people from which to view it.

What would you say to someone thinking about applying to the fund?

This fund is about levelling the playing field for anyone who doesn’t fit the mould. If you’ve been negatively impacted due to your diversity you deserve to be supported. The Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund genuinely reaches out to a wide range of diversities.

Discuss it with a trusted supervisor. Read through the information to make sure you’re comfortable sharing your journey. Reach out to someone connected to the fund to ask for advice. Be proud of your own achievements.