Ask the Impossible Questions! Meet Lauren Barr

Lauren Barr (@lauren_emily_b) is a PhD researcher, in the third year of study, at the University of Exeter. She is a member of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Metamaterials there. She looks specifically at metamaterials which are twisted, or chiral, much like a lot of the objects we encounter in our daily lives, from hurricanes to our DNA. You can catch up with her, and hear more about the twisted world around us, at Soapbox Science Exeter on 24th June where she will give a talk entitled: “Left or Right Handed? And Why Does It Matter?”


SS: Lauren, what is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

LB: I work in the field of metamaterials, which are materials that have unusual properties determined by their structure, rather than their atoms like in natural materials. We try to design materials that interact with light (and other longer-wavelength radiation) in ways that were always thought to be impossible.

In particular, I study metamaterials that are made of twisted structures, and so will interact with and create light that is also twisted. I think one of the most fascinating discoveries I made was that some beetles have made their own metamaterial in their shells that does exactly that!


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science? 

LB: It all started when I was in secondary school. I went to a very small school, set in the middle of a barley field in Loughbrickland. There weren’t many students, and not many at all who wanted to study Physics for A Level. Luckily it was also a very lovely school! After a long struggle with timetables, one teacher decided to put on an extra class for the only two Physics students in the school. It was during that time that I really started to enjoy Physics – I could understand a little bit more about how the world worked with each lesson – I was addicted!

After that, I knew I wanted to keep learning, and I haven’t wanted to stop since! I think it shows that if you have to fight for something, like your chance to study a subject, the results become even more rewarding.


SS: How did you get to your current position?

LB: I studied Physics at Queen’s University Belfast, where I completed a Master’s Degree. The best part for me was working in a lab on my own project – I loved getting to build a microscope, and use it to study how patterning the metal around a tiny hole affects the light that gets through.

During my project there I was lucky to meet my then-future-PhD-supervisor while he visited the University. We talked about Physics (another thing I thoroughly enjoy!) and I decided I would move across the sea, and start my PhD in Exeter.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place? 

LB: I have attended the event as a spectator for the past couple of years, and always had a great day out! I was fascinated by the diversity of subjects that people are working in, and loved learning a bit more about different sciences in such a fun environment.

One of the most important things I have to do when I learn something new is tell others about it. Otherwise, the new thing I learned won’t really be very useful. So when I got the chance to tell lots of people about my work at Soapbox Science, I couldn’t resist!


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

LB: Inquisitiveness-encouraging!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be? 

LB: I would like to remove some of the uncertainty about the future. I absolutely love going to work every day, because I never know what I will discover – that kind of uncertainty makes the job interesting! But not knowing whether or not I will have a job, or if I will have to move to a different city or country, that kind of uncertainty makes the job more stressful.


SS: What words of encouragement would you give to students who might be interested in a career in science?

LB: My advice would be to think about what you do that makes you really content. If you love reading about the stars, or learning how cells work, then you should just keep doing that! If sometimes it gets really difficult, you shouldn’t be discouraged because science gets more interesting the longer you study it. And once you have solved one problem that seemed impossible at the time, you know that you can solve any other problem that seems impossible too!

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