Lauren Barr

Published on: 18 May 2017

Using fun demonstrations at Soapbox Science, Lauren will explain how mirror symmetry is important when it comes to molecules interacting with our bodies.

Lauren Barr is in the third year of her PhD in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Metamaterials at the University of Exeter. She uses metamaterials to better understand how large twisted molecules interact with twisted light. 

What is your current research about?

My area of research is in metamaterials – these are interesting materials that get their properties from their structure, rather than the actual materials they are made of. Mostly these are used to design invisibility cloaks, or antennas for new generations of mobile internet. In my work I use a metamaterial that acts like a collection of twisted biomolecules, something like giant DNA. This allows me to find out how we can better detect and analyse these molecules, by watching what happens when my metamaterial interacts with twisted light waves.

Who or what has inspired you to do this research?

When I was younger I loved to read about the natural world. Mostly animals and plants – I was fascinated by how things worked. I think that fascination was helped along by my parents’ unending support (and patience for answering all my questions!) That started me on the road to being a scientist, but it wasn’t until I was in the final years of school that I decided to study Physics. I worked hard for my degree in Queen’s University Belfast, and met many wonderfully encouraging people along the way, one of whom introduced me to my current PhD supervisor.

I don’t think there can be one person who inspired me more than others to take this career, but my family have been a constant inspiration for most things I’ve done. 

You can follow Lauren Barr on Twitter


Can you tell us a little bit about what you will be talking about, at the Soapbox Science event?

During my time at the Soapbox Science, I’ll be showing how important symmetry is. In particular, I want to explain how things with no mirror symmetry play a role in our lives. Like I said before, DNA and other biomolecules are twisted, and the direction of that twist (clockwise or anticlockwise) is really important when it comes to molecules interacting with our bodies. Then I’ll tell everyone the techniques I’m working on to help identify the direction of twist of very small numbers of molecules. And of course there will be some fun demonstrations along the way! 

If you were to organise a Soapbox Science event, which inspiring female speakers would you love to hear from (past or present)?

If I could invite anyone, past or present, I think the first on my list would have to be Rosalind Franklin. She was the first person to image the structure of DNA, although Watson and Crick, famous for the discovery, were the first to interpret it. Since her idea forms the basis for a lot of the work I currently do, I’m sure she would have some great insights to share.

My second guest would be Ursula Franklin. She was a wonderful lady, who worked tirelessly towards peace and equality for all, while still maintaining a career as a top physicist. In fact, her scientific findings led to laws forbidding the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. I would love to hear her speak about modern technology and today’s society.

My final speaker would be, Hedy Lamarr. She first became famous as a Hollywood actress in the 1930s, but in her spare time she loved to invent things! One of her inventions, a technique for protecting submarines from missiles during the war, is still used today for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology. I would love to hear about the other things she invented, and I think she can show us that anyone can be a physicist, even if it’s not a full-time job – we just need to look around us for problems waiting to be solved!

Do you think that it is more difficult for a woman to get recognition in your field?

Not necessarily. It is quite clear that there are more men than women who study Physics (and other science subjects), but I don’t believe that a woman in any of these fields will find it difficult to gain recognition. In fact, we often have more opportunities as there are so few of us!

I think the problems that female scientists may face occur at a much younger age, maybe even at the very beginning of their education. If I could give one piece of advice to anyone who finds they really enjoy learning about how the world works, it would be to keep doing it! Even when things get difficult you shouldn’t be discouraged, because science gets more interesting when it gets more difficult!

Related links

» Exeter Soapbox Science

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