Cambridge & diversity

Kate Stone: becoming Kate

Kate StoneAfter struggling at school, Kate Stone excelled in her degree in electronics at the University of Salford. She came to Cambridge to do a PhD in physics and micro-electronics and is now a research engineer in the Institute of Manufacturing, establishing her own successful start-up company. Dr Stone is transgender and in 2007 she transitioned to become Kate.

What was school like for you?

I went to all sorts of schools: primary school, prep school, comprehensive school and public school. I just was not motivated; I had no vision, didn't know what I wanted to do and didn't do particularly well. I didn't do very well in my A-Levels, which is why I went travelling to sort of find myself. I just didn't know who I was and that's what I've learnt in life—you just have to be whatever you feel you are, and then you will do well. If you remove the hang ups that hold you back you will do things to the best of your ability.

Why did you choose Cambridge for your PhD?

I was really lucky. I had a choice of doing PhDs at UCL, Kings, and Cambridge. I tried not to be swayed by the Cambridge thing, you know, of having such a name, and wanted to think about the project. I was really excited about the project at Cambridge—how I could interact with the supervisor, and the work that had been done before. The project was also a good match with what I'd done in my degree.

Cambridge is such a beautiful place; it seemed like such a nice place to come. I came to Cambridge with my partner and small child and picked St John's College because they were able to give us a really nice house to stay in. We lived in a row of terraced cottages, with a garden out the back which was shared by other houses; there were maybe seven houses in the row, and eleven children. It was just fantastic. All the kids shared the toys and were in and out of each other's houses. So I chose Cambridge for lots of reasons, I think: great PhD, lovely town to live in and a great environment to start a family.

And you chose to stay on?

Yes, I just can't leave! It's a very inspirational place to be. It's small enough to be able to know lots of people, and you do feel safe, and also, I guess, because it's quite small, lots of amazing things happen and there are amazing people—people starting companies, people doing things that have worldwide reputations.

Before I came to Cambridge, I thought it was somewhere that I wouldn't be able to come to. When I telephoned from Salford about doing a PhD, my knees were literally shaking; I was trembling just at the whole Cambridge reputation thing. I thought that Cambridge was somewhere that someone like me just could not go to. Then I came here and I did really well. I came to an environment that I thought I could do things in, and did. I just got used to Cambridge being somewhere where you can be who you believe you are. You can do what you believe you can do. It wasn't so much about the gender thing. It's just that after being in Cambridge, I ended up with this attitude that I can be whoever I believe I am and do whatever I want to do.

You transitioned to become Kate in 2007, has Cambridge been supportive in the changes you have made?

Yes. It's been like a lifetime but in a good way. It's been an absolute whirlwind since it happened, so it almost feels too far back in the past to remember.

I'm an embedded researcher in an engineering department, and the group of people around me are all guys—there's about 10 guys here—and one day at work I told them. As I remember it, it was on a Monday, we were all sitting together in the kitchen at lunchtime, and everyone was just sat around, and I say, oh guys, I've got something to tell you. I've decided I'm going to become a woman, so I'm going to start coming to work dressed as a woman. They looked at me, and one guy looked at another guy and said, can you pass the chilli sauce please! And the conversation continued as if I hadn't said anything!

The next day, we were all sitting down at lunchtime, and I said, guys, I've got another announcement to make. I've decided that I'm going to become vegetarian. And their reaction—they were stunned! They were like, oh my god! How long have you felt like this? How are you going to cope without the meat! Have you really thought this through! So not eating meat they find a little difficult to deal with, but the other thing—whatever. So I guess at a certain point I started coming to work as Kate, changed my name, and it was absolutely fine. Not a problem at all.

And are you still vegetarian!?

Yes, definitely! You know, so many times in life we ponder and worry so much about making decisions. When you make a decision you instantly know that it's the right thing to do. I totally know that the changes that I've made are definitely right, because I'm so much happier. Becoming Kate and becoming vegetarian were definitely the right things for me.

Do you find it different being a woman working in a male-dominated field?

Yes, it definitely makes a difference. I've just learned to be focused on who I am and what I'm doing. It is one thing being a woman, and it is another thing being transgendered. If I focus on—oh my god, I'm transgendered, what's everyone going to think, are they going to take my seriously—if I have all those hang ups in my head then I will get absolutely nowhere.

I'm learning that when I speak to someone they have to be hit by my personality, by me talking about my work, about who I am and what I'm doing, so much so that they don't have time to think that first of all it's a woman and then it's a transgender woman.

Things are very difficult when you make a change, and they are very difficult when people see something that's different for the first time—they don't see you as a person with a personality, they don't see you as human. You can have a really quite unpleasant time at first. But if you actually connect with someone, speak to them, they see a person, and they see a person just like themselves, just looking a little bit different. And we all look different. So it's just making sure I get past that point and actually connect with people. I don't believe in hiding away and not going wherever I want to go. You get one life and you just have to choose if you're going to live it or not.

The University has been great, for the work and everything; it's been fantastic, but in terms of making friends, the people of Cambridge have also been absolutely amazing. They have totally changed my life. Otherwise I could have been living in an LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) bubble in the University, and that's not real life; that's what the amazing thing is, it goes beyond the University and into the town as well. It was very inspirational to find out that the mayor of Cambridge (2007–08) was transgendered. She now does some part-time work with me, which is great.

You have established a successful start-up company, can you tell me more about it?

The company's called Novalia and we are looking at making anything that's printed interactive; giving printed materials a 21st century user experience. It's lots of fun—a combination between science and art. We've made a children's book that includes spoken clues for the ‘reader’ to follow, taking them to seven possible endings. The technology is simple, but we are just really creative about what you can use it for. Imagine a High School Musical poster, where one of the characters sings part of a song and you can sing part of it back. You could have the poster in a child's bedroom or something like that. Keep them entertained!

What would you say to someone who doesn't think Cambridge is the place for them?

I would say that the only person who is saying that is themselves; who is telling them this is not a place they could come? If whatever you're coming to study is the thing for you I don't think anything else should or would get in your way.

What would be the one word you would use to sum up your experience of Cambridge?

That's difficult… it makes you think, which is good. I don't know—opportunity?