Dr. Clara Barker (she/her) is a thin-film material scientist at the Centre for Applied Superconductivity, as well as Dean of Equality and Diversity at Linacre College, Oxford University. She runs LGBTI+ youth groups, has a YouTube channel on science and nerdy stuff, climbs, collects records, and loves playing Dungeons and Dragons.
How did you first get interested in science?
I was always drawn to science. It just made sense to me, and I really enjoyed it. That said, I enjoyed other subjects too, and STEM also seemed like a "sensible" path—which alone wouldn’t have been enough, but as I enjoyed it too, it worked out.
What experiences led you to your current career path?
My path really wasn’t an A-to-B route. I dropped out of school before I finished due to bad mental health as a result of my gender dysphoria. This pre-internet—we had four TV channels, and in the UK there was a law called Section 28, which was basically a gag order on schools and public places talking about LGBTI+ people.
I wanted to get back into STEM, taking an engineering path initially. I did a course that allowed me to get onto a degree [track], then completed a degree. From there I took a job as an electrical engineer, and then as a material engineer for a company in the UK. That led to me being offered a material science Ph.D., which I jumped at.
I followed this with postdoc positions but I still hadn't come out as trans. I just didn’t see any LGBTI+ scientists around me, and thus I felt I had to choose between transition and happiness, or my career. I chose my health and happiness. I only interviewed at Oxford to make a statement, to see if I would be treated as badly as other friends had in STEM at other places. Seven years later, I'm still here.
What's your research on?
I’m a thin-film material scientist, so I am mostly interested in the process of making the films and less interested in the end product, to be honest! I've made various types of films, but currently I'm making thin-film superconducting materials. I'm not currently carrying out my own research, but rather supporting our researchers, Ph.D. and master’s students, and postdocs with theirs. Our lab specializes in superconductors and battery materials, with our researchers making both thin film and bulk materials. However, I've been getting back into my own research and am currently trying to get myself a fellowship.
Outside of research, you’re also chair of the LGBT+ advisory group for the University of Oxford and you run your own YouTube channel. Could you explain why each of these is important to you, and what's currently in progress with them?
The advisory group I joined almost from coming to Oxford. We mostly do work behind the scenes, advising the university. We put on some lectures each year highlighting amazing LGBTI+ people, but it's really just ticking along right now. Most importantly it gets me into university equality and diversity meetings, where I can campaign for change. So it may not seem like much externally, but it is something I find very worth doing. You cannot change anything unless you're in the room and being heard. Sometimes that means taking a softer approach, not being as outwardly critical, and honestly I'm so encouraged by the progress I've seen the last five or six years. So it's worth doing.
The YouTube channel is my outlet. I talk about social justice in rants, I chat with other scientists to show how diverse STEM is (this is also a podcast), I do science explanation videos on my area of expertise, but I also do super nerdy stuff. It's so important for scientists to remember to do stuff they enjoy. I review board games (including for a large board-game channel), talk about D&D, and make videos showing how I paint miniature figures and make dioramas. I really enjoy this, and it is real good fun. But it has a reason, too. I found myself by watching YouTubers, and it allowed me to accept myself. But usually when you see trans YouTubers, they're talking about being trans. I don’t do this too often—mostly I talk about stuff I enjoy, and I happen to be transgender. I think that's so important, that we're recognized as people who happen to be trans.
Why was it important to you to contribute your story to 500 Queer Scientists?
I was leaving STEM because I saw no LGBTI+ scientists around me. In 13 years I met two openly LGBTI+ scientists, neither in my field and neither trans. That lack of visibility had an impact, and I was out the door.
As I have had the chance to stay in STEM, I realize I am far from alone, yet there is still a lack of representation. The first time I gave a talk on being trans in STEM, a second-year student told me they were considering leaving STEM because they hadn't seen any other trans scientists. I made an impact. And I continually hear this story. People keep saying the same things to me—teachers, school pupils, students, later-career scientists. Even now I still hear that I'm the first openly LGBTI+ scientist some people have heard speak. With the world going digital for events, I've actually heard from people who attended science talks I was speaking at and live in countries where it's illegal to be LGBTI+. They couldn’t attend a queer event, but they could attend a science event where there happens to be a queer scientist. How amazing is that?
I mentioned doing outreach for schools in passing, but visibility to young people is really important to me. Sometimes they come to see a trans person talk, but sometimes they come to see an Oxford scientist, and are faced with a trans-woman covered in tattoos—not what they expect. That's great, let's break down those barriers.
But I also run LGBTI+ youth groups (with a support group for parents and carers too), and these are great. I train other local youth organizations, and honestly want to make my youth groups obsolete but right now we're not there. Queer young people need a space to meet others their own age, make friendships, and see adults who are LGBTI+ and who they know they can get advice from. It's amazing to see the confidence of some of these young people grow, and their mental health improve. I love science, but the youth groups are the things I'm most proud of.