Claire Richards: "Don't be afraid to follow what you want to do, even if you are intimidated by everything you don't know how to do"

By Marina Crifar |
February 11, 2021
For the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we decided to put Claire Richards, PhD student at Actronika, in the spotlight. From art with her degree in design to science with her research on bone conduction, discover the inspiring experience of a young woman seeking to break down the barriers to scientific research.

Born in the United States, Claire has always been interested in science, her mother being a high school chemistry teacher and a mentor for a robotics team for young girls. But from university, driven by an artistic spirit, she looked for a path combining technical and artistic knowledge.

"I thought that the field that perfectly combined these two interests was design", explains Claire.

She then embarked on a program in ergonomics at Cornell University and at the same time did internships to learn how to work with wood and sculpt. Cornell University requires its students to choose a wide variety of courses in addition to their specialty. Claire will then discover other topics ranging from astronomy to economics and begin to cultivate a double profile, both theoretical and practical. But her passion for everything creative made her want to focus more on her experience in the field of design. For her third year at university, she decided to participate in an exchange program with a private school of interior design in Paris. She arrived in France for the first time without any experience in architecture.

"It was complicated, she admits, but it was also a very enriching experience, I was able to learn a lot".

This program persuaded her to continue in design, but not necessarily in architecture. She decided to turn to technological design, choosing the master's degree in Creation and Contemporary Technology from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle (ENSCI).

From a university design project to a bone conduction research project

During this program, she developed the project that led to her decision to become a researcher.

Claire decided to create a technology that questions the common understanding of hearing, and explores alternative ways to perceive sound. This project particularly echoes in her, because she herself is hard of hearing but has a passion for everything musical. She discovered a curiosity for bone conduction during her master’s program at ENSCI, and began to conceptualize the device that would allow her to explore it. The principle of bone conduction is based on the fact that sound is always transmitted by vibrations, whether that be through the air to the outer ear, or through the skull straight to the inner ear. History tells that one of the first to use it was Ludwig van Beethoven, who wanted to continue playing music despite his advancing deafness. For this purpose, he placed a conductive rod on his piano and clamped it between his teeth. The vibrations were then transmitted to his jaw and this allowed him to continue to hear and compose his music.

History tells that one of the first to use bone conduction was Ludwig van Beethoven

Claire performs her tests with participants by placing vibrators on the spine, sternum and clavicle. These bones are close to the surface of the skin and their skeletal structure is connected to the skull, so they conduct the vibrations well to the inner ear. With her master’s director, she created a functional model that allowed this idea to be explored.

"Unfortunately the master’s program at ENSCI was too short to go any further, but I really wanted to pursue this project. So I tried to set up a doctoral thesis".

But coming from an industrial design university without a doctoral school, she had to find the funding and a team on her own. It took her two years.

The meeting with Actronika

During this period, she joined the start-up Actronika, specialized in vibrotactile haptics, which will help her to finance and supervise her thesis with the IRCAM laboratory (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in the framework of a CIFRE thesis, co-financed with the ANRT (National Association of Research and Technology).

"Actronika was the ideal partner for my thesis because the start-up also grew out of research work and has the same desire to highlight research and apply it in everyday life. Actronika also gives me the crucial experience I was lacking in haptics", says Claire.

During her thesis, Claire admits that she had moments of doubt. Without an engineering, programming or hard science background like the other thesis students in her lab, she does not have all the knowledge and methods to conduct her research alone. But her atypical profile allows her to approach research with a different perspective. She combines science and design in order to apply what is called universal design, a principle in design theory that aims to valorize inclusion and human diversity. For Claire, the diversity to highlight is hearing deficiency, often seen as a handicap. This theoretical approach allows this handicap to open a door towards new imaginations of what it can mean to hear. Her research is progressing well and she can count on her teams to provide her with the skills she lacks.

"The Actronika team supports me in many technical aspects that I don't master, such as programming for the experimental interface or mechanical design. I have found an excellent team, I am very lucky".

Building on the strength of her experience, she now wishes to encourage more diversity in scientific research. She believes that research deserves to be more accessible, whether it be to women, to more artistic profiles or just to anyone who wishes to apply their theories in a scientific framework to fully realize the value and potential impact of their ideas.

She sends a beautiful message to all those who are afraid to take the plunge:

"Don't be afraid to follow what you want to do, even if you are intimidated by everything you don't know how to do. I have found a way to enter a very technical scientific field without having the traditional diplomas. But I'm doing very well by being open, curious, and realizing what I can do and what I can't do. The important thing is not to think that you can do everything on your own. It's good to connect with other people who have other skills. Even though you sometimes need support, the heart of the project remains in you and it wouldn't exist without you."


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