There are people from all walks of life and every culture I can think of and it makes it a fantastic place to work

Elizabeth Davis-Fowell
Elizabeth Davis-Fowell
PhD Student
Rare-Earth Free Bulk Permanent Magnet Alloy Development
This Pride Month, we spoke to Elizabeth about her experiences in the Department. She graduated as a Physicist, but always had an interest in materials physics. Having spent some time with 'nuclear binmen' in Scotland, she now develops new magentic alloys for electric cars.

What inspired you to work in this area?

Throughout my undergraduate degree, I always had an interest in Materials Physics as it seemed to be this mysterious realm where Quantum Mechanics met Classical Physics in a delightful mess of approximations but the University of Warwick didn't really offer too many modules in the field during my time on their Physics Programme.
So, following graduation, I ended up in the Submarine Delivery Agency (an Executive Agency of the MOD) and their Submarine Dismantling Programme. Whilst I loved my time working with 'the nuclear binmen' in Rosyth, the hesitancy in the nuclear decommissioning sector to break new ground with innovation and experiment was not for me. Also, whilst the team I ended up working with in Scotland was very much like a second family to me (essential when on a 9 month rotation away from home!), I found the culture of the MOD to be very conservative and problematic for an openly queer person so I started to look for a workplace with a more forward looking aspect in most interpretations of the phrase!

Whilst searching through and equivalent websites, I stumbled across a PhD investigating the nuclear fuel cladding for PWR reactors through the Advanced Metallic Systems Centre for Doctoral Training (AMSCDT) and submitted an application. When I arrived, the project was no longer available but I was asked if I wanted to interview for the CDT in general to see if it was for me and then they would let me know when projects came up I might be suitable for. I am so glad I made that decision as one of the first questions I was asked was,"What is my opinion of Equality, Diversity and Inclusions in the workplace and what does it mean to me?" As someone who was looking to leave their current place of work over EDI concerns, to have it as an interview topic was certainly a good sign!

In the end, I passed the interview and was pointed towards a project developing new magnetic alloys for electric cars. Totally unrelated to the nuclear sector but far closer to the topics that interested me as an undergrad so I just thought, "sod it, here is an organisation that values EDI enough that they use it as an interview filter question before technical criteria and a topic that I can actually get excited about", fired off an affirmation of interest and took the plunge. Safe to say, 2 years later, I don't regret that decision!

What are your experiences of working in the Department?

Well, with Covid (the dreaded buzzword of 2020 onwards), working *within* the department is somewhat inaccurate but working with the staff has certainly been interesting. Being a smaller department, we have a real mixture of people from technicians with 20+ years in industry prior to working at the University to Academics at the top of their field to PhD candidates fresh into the department. There are people from all walks of life and every culture I can think of and it makes it a fantastic place to work. This can occasionally lead to the odd cultural clash between more conservative cultures and queer culture from my personal experience but the atmosphere here is one of acceptance, tolerance and support. I have found the staff here to be incredibly friendly and considerate, making it a real pleasure to work within the department (even when your experiment is catching fire, exploding or melting all around you).

Do I get involved in any activities outside of the department?

Yes! I like to keep busy, certainly! In my spare time, I run the University Rock Society, a collective space for fans of the Alt music scene to gather and enjoy alt culture as a community, as well as play in a few bands throughout the North West and train with Sheffield Steel Roller Derby. It may mean that I don't have many evenings at home in front of the telly, but certainly if you are wanting to fill your evenings, Sheffield has almost too many options to indulge in!

Do you draw inspiration from anyone in the LGBTQIA+ community?

A really challenging question, I guess, because there aren't that many visible role models... As a queer woman, I would say that Sandi Toksvig was always a bit of an inspiration as a queer, clever and hilarious woman but I will say that we need more queer female role models in science. An easy answer would have been Alan Turing but thankfully, that association would have been more akin to my time in defence rather than academia!

As a transperson, I would say that people like Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton, Elliot Page and Sarah McBride serve as an inspiration that being trans shouldn't hold people back in achieving their personal and professional goals. I will say that there is a disappointing lack of UK trans role models to be inspired by and it saddens me that there was no UK MP I could point to and say "this is my representation in Parliament" but at a time in the world where there seems to be ever-increasing pressure to erase trans visibility and introduce legislation to make our lives harder and harder (often spurred on by the press and fringe organisations), it is good that at least we can turn to the media and see an ever-increasing number of trans roles on screen, showing the world we exist and won't be erased (I say as I work my way through the Pose boxset on Netflix). Who knows, maybe I am arrogant enough to say that I can be my own role model sometimes. In a society where it often feels like everyone is out to get Trans+ people, I am glad I am still here and I hope by writing think pieces like this, I can at least reaffirm the slogan that was the subject of a large advertising campaign a few Prides ago - It Gets Better!