Profile: Elli Harpum

Location: UCL, London UK 
Field of expertise: Quantum Physics
@victorianphysic

photo credit: Hannah Coleman

Tell us about your background

I have had hearing loss since I was 14 months old, having glue ear treated with grommets that led to scarring on my ear drums. I lip read as a child and this covered my hearing loss until I was in Sixth Form, when I contracted a severe ear infection in both ears. After treatment, I spent several years trying to find the cause of my hearing loss, but it wasn’t until after I had finished my BSc and MSc that I started to become involved in the Deaf community. My family are all hearing, and we are Christians. My brother is learning BSL and the rest of the family have all indicated that they would like to learn. I went to a local comprehensive, and then to a boarding school for sixth form where I was a day pupil. I then went to university in Cardiff for my BSc, and UCL for my MSc and am now working on my PhD.

How did you get to where you are?

I have always wanted to study Physics; my earliest memories are from stargazing and when I discovered I could study space as a career when I was 12 I was ecstatic. As I learned more Physics, I realised that space wasn’t even my favourite sub category of Physics- that belonged to magnetism. A family friend started a PhD in my teens and that was when I was determined to do one myself, in Physics. All I ever wanted to do was study Physics all the time. I wear an insulin pump, which is affected by magnetic fields. My biggest concern was that I would have to adapt my diabetes treatment so that I could study what I wanted to.

As I progressed through my BSc I realised that other people’s perceptions of me were always going to be my biggest challenge; for some reason my disabilities are the thing that people think are going to prevent me from achieving my goals. To mitigate this, I do what I do and I do it well. Just because I have a different work pattern or have to take extra days off when my diabetes gets in the way or I have another ear infection doesn’t mean I’m not an excellent physicist.

What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?

I work from home (which started way before the pandemic!) and am allowed to work flexible hours. I have captioners for video meetings, who have been trained in the vocabulary that is used in my field to make them much more accurate than automatic captions. 

What advice would you give your former self?

You work differently to other people, and that doesn’t make you wrong or worse than anybody else, or not able to be a Physicist. You are an excellent problem solver. Go to the GP and get treatment for depression and anxiety. It is not a failure to need help. You will feel so much more yourself when your brain chemicals are balanced properly.

Any funny stories you want to share?

In my undergrad, I had concessions for my hearing loss, like I sat near the front of the lecture hall, etc. I was also allowed to ask lectures to shave their beards if it got in the way of lip reading!


Short bio:

Elli is a Quantum Physicist based in the UK. She is deaf, diabetic and disabled, and uses a wheelchair. Elli also wears an insulin pump with continuous glucose monitoring sensors, which can be a problem around magnets, her main research focus! Despite having multiple hearing problems and operations since childhood, she was only diagnosed in June 2020 with hearing loss, but has embraced her deaf identity since then, getting involved in Deaf Rainbow UK, her local Deaf Association and learning BSL. 

Elli is a passionate advocate for disabled academics and has spoken at several events about being a disabled woman in Physics. 

Elli did her BSc in Physics at Cardiff University, and her MSc at UCL. She is currently on a medical break from her PhD in Quantum Physics but intends to return to academia one day. In the meantime, she is writing a series of picture books about her disabilities for her friend’s daughter and a novel about being diagnosed and discovering the Deaf community in early adulthood, learning BSL, tutoring maths and physics, and being a Guide leader on Zoom. 

Elli is married to Sam, and they live in Cambridge, UK. Elli is currently persuading Sam that they need an academic cat!

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