Interview with Oxford University research assistant, Clare Halliday

Published: Nov 19th, 2016

Picture of Clare HallidayClare Halliday, 27, is a research assistant at Oxford University. She has been deaf from a young age, but it hasn’t held her back from pursuing her passion for science and landing her dream job. Here she tells us all about her achievements, and how she’s come to terms with the challenges deafness brings.

“It took me a long time to be comfortable within myself. I was brought up in a hearing world and in my teenage years I struggled to accept that my deafness meant I didn’t fit in well with my hearing peers. But over the years I’ve learned that it’s OK for things not to be perfect and I’m glad to say I’ve found a healthy balance between the two worlds. I’m proud of being deaf and  have worked so hard – overcoming so many barriers to pursue my passion for science and get to where I am.”

An early diagnosis

“I was diagnosed as profoundly deaf when I was a year old in 1990. Hearing aids were no good for me, so when I was three my parents decided to let me have a cochlear implant fitted. It was a last resort, as by this point I was completely deaf, so my parents felt there was nothing to lose. The implant in my right ear completely changed my life – I could hear sounds and this helped to shape my speech. It also boosted my confidence in engaging with my hearing peers which I believe has made it easier for me to do well in my studies and work in the field of science.”

Discovering a passion for science

“I first realised that I was good at science at school – I attended the Mary Hare school for the deaf in Newbury, Berkshire – and went on to study biology at A-level. I then did a Science Foundation year at the University of Southampton to boost my grades, and this was my first experience of studying in a big hearing institution. Through the Disability Student Allowance (DSA) scheme I was given a note taker who joined me in my lectures, and I sometimes had sign language interpreters with me in my lab classes.

“Although my speech is generally quite good – and people don’t usually find it difficult to understand me – it’s still not completely natural for me to speak. So I spent a lot of time in university working out how to pronounce words, and simplifying my vocabulary, which helped me to communicate with my hearing peers. After three years I graduated with a 2:1 in BSc Biomedical Science in 2011. I was so proud of myself, and so too were my parents who always believed I would do well and get this far. I then went on to do a masters (MSc) in Medical Diagnostics.”

Working at Oxford

“I now work as a grade six Research Assistant at William Dunn School of Pathology – which is one of the departments in the University of Oxford’s Medical division. Here I’m involved in a project that involves ‘tagging’ Trypanosoma brucei genome. Trypanosomes is a type of parasite that can be transmitted via flies, and causes sleeping sickness in humans and animals. Tagging the genome allows us to see where the proteins are expressed within the parasite so we can better understand its function and how it works. It involves a lot of lab work, writing up the findings and then presenting them to my team and project stakeholders.

“I really enjoy what I do and it’s great to be able to work at one of the world’s top universities, but I always make sure I find time to play sports and be with my family and friends. I currently play hockey for a local team and I love walking with the family dog back home in the Cotswold’s countryside – stopping by the pub at the end of the day to have a nice drink by the fire. I also see my friends regularly and like to switch off by reading a book or watching TV, and I travel when I can.”

Support from my employer

“Even though my employees have never worked with a deaf employee before, they’ve been really supportive, and have adapted to my needs so everything in the workplace is fully accessible. For example, the team used to have their meetings in a sitting room with powerpoint presentation on a projector and sofas placed in a circle with a speaker placed on one of the sofas. When I arrived this format was changed – the speaker now sits next to the projector so so I can lip read while looking at the powerpoint slides. In our meetings we can get very passionate discussing our projects, and can easily all end up talking at once! But we try to avoid this and make sure that one person speaks at a time, making sure they’re in my view.

“There are still times when things are difficult, but I’m a lot more confident now and speak up when I need support. For example, recently I attended the British Society for Parasitiology Conference in the Czech Republic for a few days. As expected, I came across a variety of  accents, a lot of background noise and jargon I didn’t understand. It was mentally and physically exhausting to lip read while listening to the absolute max of what my cochlear implant enables me to do. I did miss out on some parts but the experience was overwhelmingly amazing, and made me realise how independent I am. It was a big learning curve, and I understand the importance of asking for support in future situations like this.”

Dealing with deafness 

“I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved, but I’ve had to work twice as hard to get to where I am – especially in university where I felt I had to compensate for what I missed in lectures. And although I’ve always been confident in my ability and did well in my studies, socialising was difficult, so I had to work on my self-confidence and self-belief. But this has helped me to be kinder, more emphatic and hard working.

“Fortunately, nowadays there’s a lot more support available in the workplace to help people fully access their role (such as Access to Work), which means you don’t have to be able to hear or speak well in order to be successful. But for those who have a hearing loss, having the willpower, confidence and determination to put in the extra effort is so important. It’s much easier to to be successful through patience, and having the strength to educate others on what deafness means and how communication can be achieved.

“Although there will be setbacks, it’s important to brush them off and keep going. It’s taken me awhile to come to terms with the struggles that come with my deafness, but accepting these challenges has helped me on my journey and has contributed to my success.”

Change for the future 

“Society still sees deafness as a limiting disability, but this belief is just another barrier that can be easily removed with the right education, support and awareness. If people would make more of an effort to understand deafness and appreciate it’s uniqueness, it would be a lot easier for deaf people to do well and show what they are capable of.”

Are you inspired by Clare’s story? Share your comments below. 

3 Responses to “Interview with Oxford University research assistant, Clare Halliday”

  1. Alasdair Grant says:

    Claire, I am interested to hear about our journey. I studied Biology and Geography and Bristol University, but I found that I had missed out a lot during my first degree – thanks to the lecturers at Bristol University not being Deaf aware. There were no books or notes to read – that was before the internet came along – now I have access to online journals and Oxford Brookes University was very good. At that time I was unable to sign – if I had BSL Interpreters – then I would have gained a 2:1. Bristol University really does go into the deep end from day one. My first practical was about cyanobacteria. I have attended the Biodiversity Institute Conference at Oxford University before, and I was impressed with Oxford University’s attitude towards hearing impairment. A big contrast to Bristol University. I would like to pursue a PhD in Agricultural Bioinformatics but it has proved to be impossible to find any funding. So, it is very encouraging to find another Deaf person seeking a career in science. I eventually ended up working as a policy advisor in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – recently I very nearly gained a distinction for my MSc in Conservation Ecology – which includes elements of bioinformatics and evolutionary biology. However, my 2:2 is preventing me from moving forward. So it seems that you and I have much to share in our journey as deaf scientists.

  2. Alasdair Grant says:

    Moreover, all I can say – congratulations – keep up the good work! I am sure that you will pursue a PhD next.

  3. Alasdair Grant says:

    Let me know if you happen to pursue a course at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I have attended a couple of courses at the EBI. It is challenging to lip-read at look at the computer at the same time. I have requested that they provide BSL interpreters for a couple of their courses and they have done.

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