Ever chatted to a quantum chemistry student? Here’s 12 things you need to know about Claire Birch.
1. She kicked off her study pathway with something non-STEM related
“I was set on being a teacher! They’d been one of the constants in my life, as well some of the most supportive and inspiring people I knew. Teachers have this unique capacity to change our whole worlds, and I wanted to do that!”
2. … but soon worked out that science was her thing!
“I started a Bachelor of Education/Bachelor of Arts at The University of Sydney but pretty early on I realised I wasn’t quite on the right path. I was bored by my education courses, I wasn’t making any friends, and I desperately missed chemistry. So, at the end of my first year, I changed to a Bachelor of Science/Arts.”
3. She only realised she was into quantum chemistry mid-way through her science degree.
“I had an inkling in high school that quantum physics and chemistry were pretty cool — the idea that the most fundamental bits of the universe were discrete and calculable seemed pretty awe-inspiring – but it wasn’t until I started my science degree that I felt like it was actually something I could do.
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“I did my first ever research project writing and running simulations of next-generation solar cells, and it really got me interested in fundamental research as a way to make real, positive change.”
4. … and now she’s doing her honours in computing for theoretical chemistry.
“I make up ways that we can use single particles—ytterbium ions—to calculate important things about molecules. Big, fault-tolerant quantum computers are probably still decades away, so we’re focusing on analogue computation, where we use the quantum-ness of the quantum computer to directly simulate the quantum-ness of the molecules!”
5. She’s passionate about STEM + helping others, and wants her career to make a difference.
“I’m finding a way to build a career that lets me do it all – help people on the individual (micro) level, and on the group (macro) level. I think something like academic research, which involves solving fundamental problems, teaching, and mentoring young scientists, might be a good option. I’m also switched onto the idea that you can build a career out of lots of smaller things, that your whole purpose doesn’t have to be tied up in a single role.”
6. She’s worked on some pretty cool projects overseas!
“I’ve also had the opportunity to work in China, at Nanjing University, as part of an exchange program run by Sydney Uni. I dabbled in experimental biochemistry, looking at making catalysts out of folded bits of DNA called guanine quadruplexes. Experimentalists have been looking at this system for a long time, but they haven’t quite managed to make it work well enough to be useful.
“I actually took that project home with me and ran some calculations on it – our results indicate that the secret to unlocking its potential might be long-range electric fields, which hasn’t yet been considered in experiment.”
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7. She loves how creative STEM subjects can be – yep, even quantum chemistry!
“I love it! It’s not just applying formulae some old dude came up with ages and ages ago; it’s turning an open question over and over in your head, trying to see it in a new way, until you get some crazy idea and roll with it. And then you find out your idea doesn’t work, so you start again!
“You have to talk to people, ask for help, think creatively, to get anywhere. You need the knowledge, sure, but science is about a lot more than grades – it’s about acting out of your curiosity, persevere with a question until you find the answer. The approach is rigorous and analytical, but the experience of being a scientist is all wonder and awe. There’s nothing better!”
8. … and says that there are some awesome careers opportunities opening up in the field!
“Emerging quantum technologies are opening up whole new start-up-based career opportunities in STEM. Quantum careers, especially in quantum computing, are incredibly multidisciplinary and challenging and honestly super exciting options!”
9. She’s excited about increasing numbers of women getting into higher-up STEM roles!
“We do need more women working in STEM, but I think what we really need is more women in higher positions in STEM. We have high proportions – approaching or even surpassing half – of women in lower level academic positions in STEM, but the numbers drop off shockingly quickly as you move up the ladder.
“We really need a total culture change – to promote flexible working conditions, eliminate the career consequences women suffer when taking time to start a family, change power structures and take reports of sexual assault seriously. That cultural change will come to pass with more women in positions of power in STEM. But we need that cultural change for more women to enter STEM leadership. One begets the other, and we need to work on both!”
10. She rates mentors, and recommends all STEM students find one!
“Mentorship is the backbone of STEM success! They encourage you and offer advice, but they also open doors, help you network, and can point out things about yourself that you haven’t noticed. STEM is really a constant game of self-improvement, and mentors are the most effective – and enjoyable –way to engage with that. It’s as easy as introducing yourself – even by email – having a coffee, and asking them. Do it!”
11. She’s got a list of goals to crush, but is still not 100% sure where her degree will take her
“At this point, I know I want to go into something as challenging and creative as fundamental research, with similar opportunities to mentor people, and that I want to contribute to bridging educational opportunity gaps in a profoundly important way. It sounds clinical to some, but I think that earning and giving lots might be the best way to do that.”
12. But the coolest thing? When she’s not hitting her quantum chemistry books, she totally plays bass guitar!
“I do alright at it! I’m not very tall, though, and basses are quite large, so I look like a child holding a regular-sized guitar when I play [laughs].”
Claire’s study pathway (so far)
>> Bachelor of Education (Secondary: Humanities and Social Sciences)/Bachelor of Arts (English), University of Sydney
>> Bachelor of Science (Adv) (Chemistry, eventually Mathematics)/Bachelor of Arts (English, Arabic Languages and Cultures), University of Sydney
>> Quantum computing for theoretical chemistry (Hons), University of Sydney
Author: Cassie Steel
As Refraction’s digital assistant, Cassie Steel spends her days researching robots and stalking famous scientists on Twitter.