Physics Role Models: You can’t be what you can’t see!

  • Lightyear Foundation
  • Sep 08 2023

New Physics Role Models announced to help disabled children and those with special educational needs feel represented and inspired to succeed, as ONS data reveals only 7.7% of physical scientists are disabled.


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Did you have someone who you looked up to when you were young, who you considered a role model? Did their journey influence your career decisions? Now imagine that you have an idea of where you would like your life to take you, but you just don’t see anyone else like you taking that path. 

This week, Lightyear Foundation, the charity breaking down the barriers to disabled children taking part in science, technology, engineering & maths (STEM), has announced five new physics role models. These amazing individuals have excelled in their physics-based fields despite the challenges they have faced (and continue to face) as disabled people, and have put themselves forward to help inspire a new generation of disabled children.

A lack of visible role models

Many people have a role model that they follow for inspiration, particularly to find a direction for their careers. Unfortunately, when it comes to physics, a lot of young disabled or neurodiverse people are discouraged from considering associated careers in part due to the lack of visible role models. 

In fact, according to new ONS data relating to disability in employment, disabled professionals working in the sciences are extremely rare, with disabled physical scientists (largely physicists) making up just 7.7% – even less than chemical scientists (8.4%) and biological scientists (9.7%).

Scientific institutions are often (and correctly) perceived as highly competitive in an environment that can seem unwelcoming and unaccommodating. This reputation contributes to the underrepresentation of disabled and neurodiverse people within these disciplines.

One way of tackling this underrepresentation is to create opportunities for young people to envision themselves pursuing their interests in the subject. 

Katherine Sparkes MBE, CEO of Lightyear Foundation shares: “This is the motivation for a new project within our Lightyear Foundation Role Model programme, highlighting disabled and neurodiverse physicists in wide-ranging roles across the sector, with very different disabilities and experiences. We want to celebrate diversity within physics and wider STEM to help inspire these children to realise their potential. The evidence is clear that young people are much more likely to pursue an education and career in STEM if they can see someone they identify with, who has gone there first and inspires them”.

This physics project within the Lightyear Foundation Role Model programme is being funded by the Institute of Physics as part of their Planet Possibility campaign. Lightyear Foundation is working with Future First, a Planet Possibility partner, to profile the lives and careers of five disabled physicists, increasing their visibility so that they can be role models for the next generation of disabled and neurodiverse physicists.

Meet the new Role Models

These new role models are:

  • Dr Jessica Boland, Senior Lecturer in Functional Materials and Devices, University of Manchester
  • Sara Fletcher, Head of Impact and Engagement, ISIS Neutron and Muon Source
  • Dr Patrick Dunne, Lecturer in Physics and Data Science, Imperial College London
  • Dr Hamied Haroon, Research Associate in Magnetic Resonance Imaging, University of Manchester
  • Dr David Cornwell, Senior Lecturer in Geophysics, University of Aberdeen

Deputy CEO Elle Wilks adds: “Our current Role Model programme, showcasing 17 disabled scientists, shows children that disability is not a barrier to success. We’re so excited to be adding 5 new and brilliant profiles specifically related to physics”.

Speaking about why he chose a career in physics, Dr Patrick Dunne – who has Asperger's syndrome, dyspraxia and Tourette’s, and has recently become a father for the first time – shares: “Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to know how things work. It turns out if you keep asking that question with smaller and smaller things you end up being a particle physicist. I’ve also always loved taking things apart and making bits of technology work with each other and it turns out there’s quite a lot of that in experimental science too”.

Dr Hamied Haroon has been disabled his whole life with physical impairments due to a genetic condition known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome, which has made the nerves in his arms and legs slowly die off since he was young. He says: “Now I have floppy hands and wear metal callipers on my legs to help me stand up. I used to be able to walk more in my callipers when I was younger but now I use a powered wheelchair to get around, which is great fun! I also have Crohn’s disease which can make my tummy hurt and make me feel tired”.

Offering advice to disabled children who might consider a career in STEM he shares: “Go for it! Don’t let anyone tell you no! Find out what options are available and what interests you most. Talk to people who work in the field you’re interested in, including people who share your disability if there are any, or else you be the first! Your passion, hard work and determination will drive you!”.

To find out more about the new Role Models, you can watch a series of video interviews here.