#WomenonWednesdays: Clarisse Bonacina

For this week’s #WomenonWednesdays interview we spoke to Clarisse, a fourth year physics undergraduate student.

Describe your path into physics. What kick started it?

I grew up in the South of France and did my education there under the French system (the French Baccalaureate). I decided to go to the UK for my studies simply because I liked the idea of going abroad. In my area, it’s quite uncommon to do that, so I sort of embarked on this journey knowing very little about how difficult it was to get in, how demanding the course would be, how many opportunities I would have. I didn’t have any ort of international exposure prior to that. It was a big step up throwing myself into university in a country where the language is not my native tongue. And I’m glad I didn’t know, I think I wouldn’t have had the confidence to just throw myself into this if I knew, I’m glad I had the courage to go into the unknown like this. I’m now in my in my 4th year and I would do it all again.

What kickstarted it – well – I’ve always been fascinated by space. That’s very common I think. As a kid, I would watch documentaries on TV about space. However my interests have always been very diverse.  Space was one of the things I was passionate about, but I wasn’t certain that I wanted to go into STEM growing up. I wanted to study music at some point, and then history of art for a very long time. In my last year of school, I shifted back and thought maybe astrophysics is what I want to do with my life. My family was supportive and enabled me to pursue this path, but never put pressure on me to do so. It’s decision I’ve made simply because of my passion for the subject.

Apart from my course, I’ve worked as an undergraduate researcher in the Space and Atmospheric physics group at Imperial and  in an astronomical imaging technology startup. I aspire to a career in astrophysics research, so the next step is applying to Ph.D. positions and continue doing what I love.

During your journey what has been your experience being a Woman in Physics?

I’m going to start with the good, for the soul… Because it’s a male dominated field, I find the community for women in Physics very strong. I’ve met extraordinary like- minded people and I’m very grateful for the work that you guys at WNBiP are doing. I’ve had so many opportunities: I met my UROP supervisor through women on Wednesdays, Julia Stawarz (I decided to contact her after reading her interview), I went to the GirlsWhoML course, I went to some of the socials…  The sense of community for women in the physics department at Imperial is outstanding. We’re really lucky, it’s something I value a lot.

Unfortunately that’s the only good thing I have to say about being a woman in Physics. It really pains me to say that there’s a lot of bad. It started at school for me: two of my male physics teachers, even though I was topping the class, told me that I did not have what it takes to study physics, that trying to compete against men in the field was hopeless. Now it’s easy to say that they were wrong as I’m completing my 4th year at Imperial, but at the time it really affected my confidence for my applications. I find it unfair that these men were allowed to treat a school student like this, with no consequences.

When joining a male dominated field at a prestigious university, I was full of hope! I didn’t imagine for a single second I would be treated differently from my male counterparts. After my first four years in the field, I am left with a bitter aftertaste.  I have experienced a lot of condescension from my peers – mostly my male peers. People often assume I am not competent, discard my contributions in group tasks or comment on how surprised they are that I’m here. The palm of annoyance goes to “you don’t look like you study physics!”, a comment I get every time I am introduced to someone, whether it is in an academic context or not. I’ve had that in my research group for example, or in my cohort countless times. I am aware that these remarks are rooted in the way I present myself to the world, mannerism as well. I refuse to change who I am as an individual to fit into the standards of what a physicist “should” look like. The Imposter syndrome is getting better every year, as I get angrier and angrier at those making these silly comments about me, but it was difficult to overcome at first.

I think it’s a shame that as a woman one has to undo all the belittling assumptions that are made against them when evolving in a male-dominated field. Sexism in STEM now has a new form. Women are rarely kept from accessing the field nowadays: girls can apply to the same courses as boys, no one will point at you and say ‘you are a woman, you can’t do this!’. The social expectations and the constant microaggressions that you have to go through if you dare to enter the field is where I think action needs to be taken. I’m talking about weaponized compliments, condescending and derogatory tones… I can’t believe how much of that I’ve experienced in my time at Imperial.

To end on a lighter note, I want to highlight two other things that I think are positive about the community at Imperial.  I recently got diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder, about six months ago), and I managed to get through the screening process easily thanks to the work of the disability service at Imperial. There are many neurodivergent personalities at Imperial, and I’m very grateful that I’m in a community where this is accepted and understood. The other great thing is the LGBTQ+ community. I identify as queer, and I find there is a lot of visibility in the department and at university in general, it’s lovely!

What was the topic of your UROP?

My UROP was in space plasma physics. I was studying the role of magnetic reconnection (that’s when two parallel magnetic field lines reconnect in a particular direction) in plasma turbulence in the magnetosheath (that’s around the earth). Magnetic reconnection is a relatively new idea, currently researched thoroughly by plenty of space physicists. It was theorised for the first time in the 1950s and observed many times in various types of plasmas since then. There are many questions about the role of this process in plasma dynamics, and a lot of things that we have yet to discover. My project was a data analysis based. I was using multiple measurement from NASA’s Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) mission. I built a programme that was able to reconstruct the three-dimensional topology of the magnetic field around reconnection events. My first attempt was at 1st order reconstruction. It gave very successful results, I was very happy with it. I then had a second attempt at 2nd order reconstruction this time, a very novel technique that just came out, and it was a lot less successful. The algorithm wasn’t behaving properly and by the end of my UROP, I couldn’t get very satisfying results out of it. I’m mentioning this because I think this experience gave me a good sense of what research is like. It’s a lot of trial and error. No guarantee of an astounding result at the end. I still loved it! My UROP also gave me an insight on what the PhD life is like and helped me make informed decisions about my future. It was a very formative experience. I am so grateful for all the support that I got and still get from my supervisor, Julia. I found a great community while working on the research group, everyone was very welcoming.

What are your hobbies outside of physics?

I have many! I like to think that I’m a well-rounded person. I’m a passionate musician. After lectures, you’ll find me in Take Note (the barbershop A Capella group that we have here in Imperial) or Chamber Choir (the classical choir at Imperial) rehearsals. Singing is just pure joy for me. I’m so happy that I get to keep doing that at university.

Apart from that, I also play the piano and the guitar. When I have a bit of free time, I book a room in the Blythe Centre and play around. Another one of my big hobbies is art. As I mentioned, I’ve always been very Interested in  history of art. I take drawing classes outside of university and I love spending time in museums. Something else I love is fashion, I love going second hand shopping and coming up with the most extravagant outfits.

The last thing I do with my free time (or however much I have left) is student committees. You might recognise me from the Physoc committee last year or RCSU committee this year. I like getting involved in the student community, it’s valuable. I’m happy to be of service and I think it teaches you a lot of life skills that you wouldn’t necessarily get in an academic context. With all of that my timetable is full.