If there was ever a super-lady to be flying the flag for young scientists it is this one right here. Dr Claire Murray (Yes – Doctor!) recently spoke at a Women in Research event that I was a part of and I have to say I was blown away! As a person who knows nothing about science-y stuff, I was enthralled by Claire’s passion and love for her subject. Really shows that when your job is something you are crazy about, it literally lights you up, inside and out. I caught up with Claire after to ask a few questions and she was only too happy to offer some words of wisdom for all the Shona girls…
At what age did you discover you were interested in science? Was there something in particular that sparked your interest?
Maths was always my favourite class in primary school. I used to hate art class as I couldn’t draw as well as the other kids in my class but as soon as we were able to do sums I was happy. When I moved up to secondary school, I became obsessed with atoms and molecules. The fact that my body, the table, the beaker on the table, the water inside the beaker, the air we breathe in were all made up of atoms just blew my mind. It makes sense therefore that I ended up in a branch of chemistry where we look at atoms and molecules and the shapes they make in tiny crystals. It is an incredibly beautiful science and one that means I love going to work every day.
(My favourite chemistry joke is ‘Never trust atoms, they make up everything!’)
Did you have a role model growing up? Is it still the same person now?
I don’t remember having a role model growing up but when I started studying for my PhD, I learned about a fantastic scientist called Kathleen Lonsdale. I wrote a short article about her for the herstory project.
What’s the coolest thing you have ever done in a lab/experiment/research?
Well I work at Diamond Light Source which is a particle accelerator bigger than Croke Park so going to work every day is very cool. I’ve been lucky enough that I have done lots of really exciting experiments so it is incredibly difficult to just pick one! I’m going to pick two examples but there are so many more I could give you.
I’ve made molecules in the same way we use simple Lego bricks to make really elaborate structures (we call it ‘Supramolecular Chemistry’). The blue model in the picture below is a 3D print of one of my molecules that I made during my PhD – it is probably my favourite molecule but don’t tell my other molecules that! It could be used to help design new materials to act as containers to transport other molecules e.g. for gas storage, drug delivery… I made it in the lab and then took it to Diamond to understand its shape which is why I know what it looks like in 3D. I used X-ray crystallography for this and it is something I’ve spent a huge part of my life doing.
I developed a giant experiment for over 100 secondary schools in the UK where over 2000 secondary students from all over the country carried out a real chemistry experiment making calcium carbonate (the same stuff found in chalk, our kettles, mussel shells etc.). The giant experiment is called Project M and we currently have a fantastic undergraduate student called Alice who is looking at all of the data we collected to help us understand our results so we can write it up for publication in a scientific journal. She is writing a blog about her experience here . It was incredible to see how excited and enthusiastic all the students were and I also got to lead a big team here at Diamond to deliver the project.
What do you think would help more young women get involved in STEM?
Honestly, I think it’s time for us scientists to stop trying to tell young women to do science. It has never worked – young women are, quite rightly, too smart to be putting up with people telling them what to study or what to do. We need to shut up and listen to young women. Personally I’d love to hear from young women about what they would like to see/do/hear about. I love having open conversations about how amazing science is and I’d happily spend hours chattering away about the amazing science I do. But I also know that I am not 15, so I would love to hear from young women about what would help them consider a career in STEM.
Tell us about another interest you have outside of the lab?
My mam is an amazing baker. She makes the best rock buns (I’ll happily fight anyone who claims otherwise!) and our house was always full of the aromas of baking cakes when I was growing up. When I started my PhD, I felt quite homesick and also quite stressed so I started baking as a way to relieve both. It worked and I haven’t stopped since. I’ve even started making themed cakes in my spare time! In fact a few years ago my family actually made my molecule into cake for my birthday which was a brilliant surprise!
If you were to give advice to your 15-year-old self, about anything, what would it be?
Life is such an exciting adventure, and there are so many exciting opportunities. Ireland has a long history of fantastic women and their stories are increasingly being highlighted by herstory, by social media (including our posters!), by new books and documentaries. You can be one of these women if you want to be.
It is really scary deciding what you want to do at college. It can feel like you are permanently signing your life away. You should take some time to carefully consider what you want to do and ask lots of questions – I’m on twitter if you want to ask me anything. However, what you do at college doesn’t have to be for forever. Life is too short to do something you hate for the rest of your life.
Passion for what you do is so important. Whether that is your job or your hobbies, it helps if you love what you do. It makes every day a lot more interesting.
You can follow Dr Claire on twitter at @drclairemurray.