Q&A: Daisy Shearer, experimental physicist-autism ambassador

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Joined: 25 Aug 2013
Age: 66
Gender: Male
Posts: 34,678
Location: Long Island, New York

07 May 2020, 4:16 am

The PhD candidate uses social media to demystify the day-to-day lives of scientists, advocate for autistic researchers, and encourage inclusion - Physics Today

In 2017, Daisy Shearer, then a 21-year-old physics major at the University of Surrey in the UK, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In retrospect, the diagnosis made sense. It explained the sensory overload and panic attacks during exams, for example, and the trouble she had maintaining friendships. But like many women and girls on the spectrum, she had gone undiagnosed for years.

Today Shearer is a University of Surrey PhD candidate specializing in experimental quantum technology and semiconductor physics. Her work focuses on finding new ways to employ electron-spin qubits in semiconductor materials for quantum computing.

Although Shearer is far from the only person on the autism spectrum in the sciences, she is one of the most publicly visible. She is a keen science communicator, using multiple social media channels to promote her research in spintronics and to advocate for autistic researchers and people with disabilities.

PT: How has your ASD diagnosis affected your life and career?

SHEARER: My life has definitely changed, but I don’t think it has impacted my career all that much, apart from becoming more confident in myself. Before my diagnosis, it felt like I never really understood myself. I had a lot of internalized self-loathing, mostly because I didn’t feel like I fit in. When a team of professionals confirmed that I was autistic, it was like I was given permission to openly be myself and to like myself for who I am. I have a much better understanding of others, now that I can recognize that, in all likelihood, their brains don’t function in quite the same way mine does.

PT: When did you get involved in autism awareness?

SHEARER: I publicly disclosed my autism diagnosis last year on Autism Awareness Day, 2 April. I had just about come to terms with my diagnosis, and I wanted to empower other autistic women and girls by talking about it online. I now speak fairly regularly about autism-related challenges and living in a society built for the neurotypical brain. My experiences certainly aren’t universal for all autistic people, but my social media posts seem to help encourage some understanding about how autistic adults like me can be supported. My feed sometimes makes people stop and think about their disabled and neurodivergent colleagues, and it encourages them to ask that person about what support they could provide. It also shows young neurodivergent people that I am thriving in this environment despite the challenges that come with it.

PT: How do you connect with other neurodivergent researchers and students?

SHEARER: I do so through social media, like Instagram and Twitter. I’ve also been involved recently with the launch of an Instagram account called Neurodivergent in STEM, which aims to promote and celebrate the work of neurodivergent people working in those fields. It’s also a way to showcase amazing role models for young neurodivergent people who are interested in STEM as well as an opportunity to forge connections between people and share best practices and experiences. In addition, I do some mentoring through online messaging and get lots of nice messages from neurodivergent people who are aspiring scientists saying that I help them feel like they can succeed.

PT: When did you start using social media to tell people about your life in and out of the lab?

SHEARER: Two months into my PhD, I set up an Instagram account called notesfromthephysicslab because I realized that my friends and family didn’t have any clue what day-to-day life as a physics PhD student was like. There seems to be a lot of mystery surrounding what scientists do, which I think puts some young people off from pursuing science as a career.

PT: Can you describe your research?

SHEARER: I’m currently a year and a half into my PhD research project and absolutely loving it. Essentially, I’m finding new ways to exploit the strong spin–orbit interaction in the semiconductor material indium antimonide [InSb] to make spin polarizers, which generate spin currents for spin injection. I’m also developing novel fabrication techniques using focused ion beam lithography to create quantum point contacts—nanostructures that polarize the spin of electrons flowing through them in materials like InSb.

My research has broad applications in quantum technology, but my current focus is on the quantum computing application to initialize electron spin qubits. I’m very interested in semiconductor-based quantum technology, as it allows us to build upon the already well-established semiconductor industry. By studying the spin–orbit interaction of indium antimonide from a fundamental quantum physics perspective, as well as developing new rapid-prototyping fabrication techniques, I’m contributing to achieving a physical implementation of a scalable quantum computer in my own way.

PT: Earlier you mentioned Instagram and Twitter. Do you use any other social media platforms to disseminate your research?

SHEARER: I’m exploring ways of communicating physics research to an even wider audience through my blog and YouTube channel. I use the former for longer, essay-style science writing and the latter for video content, which helps me to improve my verbal communication. Most of my outreach is now online, as it’s easier for me to manage alongside my research than doing in-person events.

PT: How do you prefer to communicate in your daily life?

SHEARER: It fluctuates from day to day. My general preference is through written text, but sometimes I like talking. It depends on how overstimulated I feel as to whether I have the capacity for talking.

PT: How do you correspond with your supervisor?

SHEARER: My preference is email. Firstly, an email is a record of the conversation that I can return to and process at my own pace. Secondly, I have a slight auditory processing delay, which sometimes makes it difficult to communicate verbally in person. On top of this, communicating in person is incredibly draining, as it requires a lot of remembering of social rules, like making eye contact. I also occasionally experience spells of becoming nonverbal. Emails allow me to communicate effectively even when I can’t form actual words out loud.

My supervisor prefers in-person communication and was concerned that I would not receive the support I needed if I didn’t meet with him as regularly as do his other students, so as a compromise we have a one-hour meeting every week in a suitable sensory environment. I prepare a PowerPoint presentation with written discussion points so that the meeting has some structure and control. It is very important to have open communication with your supervisor about what you need to achieve your best, and to make sure that they can provide you with the guidance you need to move forward.

PT: Can you explain sensory overload and what you do to cope with it?

SHEARER: Sensory overload is something that I have to manage every day. Many autistic people experience sensory inputs in extreme ways. We may be understimulated or overstimulated by a particular sense, which is linked to how autistic brains take in a lot more information from our surroundings than the brains of most neurotypical people.

Some sensory aids that I find useful help reduce sensory input, such as ear defenders or noise-canceling headphones. Items like a weighted blanket provide deep pressure, which is useful for regulating proprioception. Liquid timers are useful for visual stimulation. Common self-stimulatory, or stimming, behaviors include skin picking and biting, rocking, hand flapping, spinning, curling into a ball, hair twirling, squeezing something, and stroking something soft. The more I allow myself to stim in public, the more energy I have and the better the quality of my work.

Neurotypical people stim too, just not to the extent that most autistic people do. If you’ve ever tapped your leg or clicked a pen on and off repetitively, that is a form of stimming. So, if you ever see somebody stimming and find it alarming, try not to stop them, as it is probably the only way they can self-regulate in that moment. It is very important that autistic people be able to stim freely.

PT: Can you describe autism meltdowns and shutdowns?

SHEARER: Autistic meltdowns and shutdowns both occur as a result of sensory overload. Meltdowns are an external reaction to sensory overload. They are often mistaken for tantrums in autistic children but are very different. A meltdown is an involuntary loss of behavioral control due to sensory overload. Experiencing a meltdown is extremely scary and often explosive and damaging. For example, someone having a meltdown may scream, yell, cry, lash out, or hit themselves.

In contrast, shutdowns are an internal response to sensory overload. I experience shutdowns much more commonly than meltdowns. During a shutdown, the autistic person may become unresponsive, nonverbal, vacant, and floppy. It is the body shutting itself off from the outside world as a result of too much sensory information. As with meltdowns, shutdowns can look different depending on the individual. For me, a shutdown is just as scary to experience as a meltdown. Sometimes I am present enough to be aware of the world around me, and I get frustrated by my inability to communicate and react. Other times it’s like I’m not even present in my body, unable to move and not sure if I even exist.

PT: What can a bystander do to help someone experiencing a meltdown or shutdown?

SHEARER: They should be treated with compassion, as they will be feeling incredibly afraid and overwhelmed. If you want to help a person who is having a meltdown, probably the best thing to do is help them remove themselves from the overwhelming environment to a “safe” space where sensory inputs are minimized. However, I must emphasize that I am not a professional; this is simply my preference.

PT: What advice would you give a colleague on interacting with a person on the autism spectrum?

SHEARER: The first thing is to treat us like human beings. We’re not some strange other species; we just have a slightly different neurotype than the majority of the general population. The best advice I can give is to ask what you can do to help that person specifically. Show that you are willing to understand and accept them as well as respect them and acknowledge that functioning in the world is difficult for them. Avoid saying things like “You don’t look autistic,” “But you’re too smart to be autistic,” or “I’m sorry.” Although you may think that you are being complimentary, to many of us autism is integral to who we are. It’s part of us, so please don’t dismiss or diminish it.

PT: What would you change in your work environment to make it more accommodating?

SHEARER: I would really like it if my university had quiet spaces that could be booked by autistic students like me to decompress. It’s also important that autistic students know that it is safe to disclose our diagnoses so we can receive appropriate support from the disability services. If you are a professor or a lecturer, please pay attention to and accommodate any reasonable adjustment requests from autistic and all other disabled students.

Overall, my university has been incredibly accommodating, including by setting me up with an allocated sensory room, which makes a world of difference for my ability to participate in my work. And my supervisor actively engages in my support and is open to learning about how autism impacts me. I think this sets an example for how other academics can help people with all types of disabilities thrive in their chosen subject.

PT: More broadly, what could the STEM community do to become more inclusive?

SHEARER: I think the best way to approach it is to be open-minded to understanding experiences that differ from your own and to question the status quo. Listen to minority groups, including disabled people, and act on what they say. I’m sure we’re missing out on the research of many amazing minds simply because a lot of STEM subjects aren’t welcoming to a diversity of experiences and backgrounds.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman