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Naturally I'm a scientist

CERN’s female scientists share their stories for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science


Naturally I'm a scientist

Manuela Cirilli, an Italian physicist, is responsible for medical applications in CERN’s Knowledge Transfer group. (Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN)

What place do women have in science? Have things really changed? To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, female physicists, engineers and computer scientists at CERN share their own experiences of building a career in science, and their opinions on how women are treated and perceived in their discipline.

Manuela Cirilli: “Follow your dreams: you won’t regret it.”

“At the age of 16, I wanted to be a journalist, at 17, an architect, and at 18, I visited CERN and immediately knew that I wanted to work here,” says Manuela Cirilli. “I felt that the scientists here were leaving their mark on the history of humankind, by transforming our understanding of the universe.

Manuela is responsible for medical applications in CERN’s Knowledge Transfer group, the team that promotes the use of CERN’s technologies for the wider benefit of society.

Manuela is a bit of a Swiss army knife when it comes to physics: multi-talented with a varied career. After gaining her physics doctorate through work on CERN’s NA48 experiment, she took part in the development of the enormous ATLAS detector and later became a member of the ATLAS experiment’s management team, all the while developing her passion for communication with the general public. She took a master’s degree in communication, published articles, got involved in the production of videos and worked on a European project to develop cancer therapy using hadron beams (hadron therapy), before eventually moving into knowledge transfer. “This job allows me to use my scientific and communication skills at the same time,” she says.

Manuela studied in Italy where, in general, women were well-represented in the lecture theatres. “But you could see the so-called leaky pipeline effect: fewer women went on to receive doctorates,” she notes.

“The nicest compliment I received was from a child who said to me: ‘You’re a normal girl!’”

She laments the fact that women are still in a minority in laboratories, especially in positions of responsibility. “There is no magic formula. We have to promote careers in science, encourage women and, most importantly, show that when women are selected, it’s because they deserve it.”

Manuela has been working with schools for a long time, promoting science among young people. “The nicest compliment I received was from a child who said to me: ‘You’re a normal girl!’” she recalls. “Just being an approachable and relatable person is the best way to help kids, girls in particular. We have to get the message across that this job is not just for a masculine elite.”

Manuela hears more and more young people expressing their worries about job opportunities or salary. “I always say to them: ‘Do what interests you, follow your dreams: you won’t regret it.” No-one can guarantee that you will find a job that matches what you studied. So you might as well set your sights on something interesting rather than on a big yet unpredictable pay packet.”


Aniko Rakai: “What’s important is ability, not gender”

Aniko Rakai, a Hungarian engineer at CERN, simulates air movements in order to optimise ventilation. (Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN)

Aniko Rakai welcomes us into a big open-plan office, where all ten or so desks, except for hers and that of one female student, are occupied by men. Aniko mainly works with men. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” she says. “There were very few women when I was doing my PhD, too. For me, what’s important is ability, not gender.”

Aniko is an engineer specialising in fluid mechanics – a discipline that combines maths, physics and computing to simulate the movements of fluids and gases. “I’m working on a project to simulate the way air moves around in the ATLAS experimental cavern, and another along the same lines but for CERN’s Meyrin site.”

The only way we can achieve a male/female balance in the sciences is to show young people the full range of scientific professions while they’re still at school. 

When she was a student, Aniko met a professor of fluid mechanics whose passion rubbed off on her, and that’s how she found her vocation. She would like to pass on her passion for the subject, just as her professor did. That’s why she’s presenting her job in schools in the framework of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. “The only way we can achieve a male/female balance in the sciences is to show young people the full range of scientific professions while they’re still at school. We can’t force girls to take up scientific careers, but if we get them interested, they might choose to study science subjects,” Aniko concludes.

Magdalena Kowalska: “Physics is a labour of love”

Magdalena Kowalska, a Polish physicist working at the ISOLDE nuclear physics facility, in front of the new nuclear physics and biology experiment that she’s developing with her team (Image: Sophia Bennett/ CERN)

Magdalena Kowalska has energy and courage to spare. The Polish physicist has received a prestigious grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to lead a project at the cutting edge of biology and nuclear physics. Scheduled to start operation this year, the experiment will use CERN’s nuclear physics facility, ISOLDE, to study how metal ions interact with molecules such as proteins or DNA. This could have applications in medical biology, for example, particularly in the study of certain diseases.

Magda (as she’s usually known) has been fascinated by maths and physics since childhood. She went into the field without worrying about the small number of women in it. “I haven’t experienced any prejudice and the fact that there are so few women actually motivated me, because I wanted to rise to the challenge,” she explains. She was one of two Polish students to benefit from CERN’s summer student programme in 2001. She was then offered a contract with a German university to complete her doctorate at ISOLDE and went on to hold a post-doctoral position at the nuclear research facility before being selected as its Physics Coordinator.

“It’s a labour of love, and you’re so keen for your projects to succeed that you don't think about all the time it takes up."

Magda has a talent for grasping opportunities and the determination to see her projects through to the end. Which is fortunate, because physics takes a lot of energy. “It’s a labour of love, and you’re so keen for your projects to succeed that you don't think about all the time it takes up. But that becomes more of a problem when you have a family. You’re always running around and have to work much more efficiently to be able to leave on time,” the mother of two young children explains.

Magda, who leads a team of 10 that includes almost as many women as men, thinks that progress is being made towards equality in particle physics. “The European programmes promote a male/female balance,” she adds. “We’re encouraged to strive for equity - now it’s even a criteria prescribed in the conditions.”


Denia Bouhired-Ferrag: “Encouraging independent spirit”

Denia Bouhired-Ferrag, an Algerian-British engineer, develops circuit boards for the accelerator control systems. (Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN)

Denia Bouhired-Ferrag welcomes us into her electronics laboratory, which is full of circuits and test equipment. She has the beaming smile of someone who has seized an opportunity. She’s an engineer and has been working in CERN’s accelerator control team, developing circuit boards, for 16 months.

Denia was selected for CERN’s post-career-break fellowship programme. This programme, established in 2014, is aimed at people who have a gap in their CV because they took time out from their career. “I stopped working while I had two children,” she explains. “Then, when I started going for interviews, I had to justify why I hadn’t worked for two and a half years.” 

Denia grew up in Algeria. At 17 years old, she was one of 40 students recognised as being the best in the country and granted a bursary to study in the UK by the Algerian government. She chose a path combining electronics with computing, and earned a PhD in wireless telecommunications. “I’d always been interested in scientific subjects, and I wanted to be an engineer,” she says.

“The world of work often treats women who start a family unfairly."

Denia is delighted that she’s managed to start a family and build a career at the same time, although it’s not always easy. “The world of work often treats women who start a family unfairly. When I first worked in Geneva, my employer didn’t renew my contract because I fell pregnant,” she tells us. “CERN, on the other hand, stands out for being open to non-linear career paths.”

This week, Denia is taking part in a series of lectures given in schools by female scientists. “It’s really important to talk to girls to show them that they can choose subjects that go against the usual societal stereotypes,” she stresses. “For the Fête de l’Escalade*, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter dressed up as a dinosaur rather than a princess. I was proud of her independent spirit and I’d like to keep encouraging it.”

*A festival that takes place in Geneva in December during which children take part in a costumed parade. 


Stéphanie Beauceron: “Let’s encourage girls to envisage a career in science”

Stéphanie Beauceron, a French physicist with the French National Centre for Scientific Research, works on the CMS experiment at the LHC (Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN)

From her office in CERN’s Building 40, where scientists working on the LHC experiments explore the boundaries of physics, Stéphanie Beauceron has witnessed a boom in the number of women taking part. “There are more and more female students, and that’s a good thing,” the CMS physicist says, “but the ‘leaky pipeline’ problem still exists. The number of women decreases with age and level of responsibility. One of the reasons for this is that it’s difficult to juggle a career in research with starting a family.”

Embracing a career as a scientist requires a good deal of determination. After completing her thesis, Stéphanie, like her colleagues, had a string of temporary contracts before landing a permanent position. She persevered because a career in particle physics is not the kind of profession that you choose at random. “When I was 17, I went to an exhibition on atomic fusion. I investigated a bit and when I discovered particle physics, I knew that it was what I wanted to do.”

Stéphanie has noticed that societal prejudice is an obstacle to equality. “I remember giving a journalist a tour of the CMS experimental cavern. At the end of the tour, she asked me: ‘When will I meet the physicist?’” Fortunately this kind of reaction isn’t a daily occurrence at work. “I’ve never felt like any of my colleagues are reluctant to work with me.”

“Meeting a female researcher helps the girls to envisage a career in science. They realise that it’s a possibility for them, too.

However, women need to work hard to gain confidence. “Female physicists often question their competence and abilities, and have a tendency to think hard before accepting tasks that a man would launch into without worrying. They need to work on their self-esteem.” This is one of the reasons why Stéphanie frequently visits schools to explain her job. “These initiatives are really useful. Meeting a female researcher helps the girls to envisage a career in science. They realise that it’s a possibility for them, too.”

Stéphanie hopes to contribute to the achievement of equality so that, one day, she will “no longer be part of the visible minority in particle physics.”


Hannah Short: “Women need to believe in their genius spark”

Hannah Short, a British computer engineer, works in CERN’s computer security team. (Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN)

Hannah Short, who works in CERN’s computer security team, is nothing like the stereotypical geek, glued to a screen day and night. “Unlike a lot of men working in IT, I didn’t programme as a hobby when I was a teenager and I don’t spend my free time reading IT magazines,” she smiles.

Hannah originally went into physics. “A lot of people were surprised by my choice, partly because I was a woman, and partly because I didn’t fit the usual profile for maths or physics,” she says. Stereotypes are hard to avoid...

Hannah discovered computer programming when studying for her Master’s degree in computational astrophysics. Before joining CERN, she worked for a few years as a programmer in a company in London.

Women are sometimes considered more suited to administrative or organisational tasks.

“IT is still a male-dominated field,” she says. What’s more, “women are sometimes considered more suited to administrative or organisational tasks. In a meeting, if we don’t have someone to take notes, everyone expects the woman in the room to do it.”

Improving the image of female computer scientists and promoting them to technical expert roles would help to attract more women to the profession. “A lot of women lack self-confidence. Women need to believe in their their genius spark, just like men do.” Hannah has cofounded the “Women in Technology” network at CERN, so that her colleagues can meet other women, for example managers, and ask questions in a more relaxed environment. 

This week, Hannah will be speaking in schools, acting as a role model. “Meeting women who work in a given field face to face immediately makes that field more accessible,” she explains. “By introducing them to a variety of jobs, we can encourage young people to choose their path on the basis of their own skills and interests, regardless of the male/female stereotypes and norms.”


Jennifer Mertens: “We can achieve equality by giving everyone the same opportunities”

Jennifer Mertens, a German accelerator physicist, works in the Technology department at CERN.(Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN)

Jennifer Mertens was born in East Germany, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “In East Germany, women had been independent for several generations and worked just like men. It was in the West that I discovered the problem of inequality in the world of work,” she explains.

Jennifer completed her doctorate on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider and then went on to work in accelerator physics. “I work in a team that’s perfectly balanced: we have just as many women as men. But that is quite unusual. In engineering, men are in the majority,” she admits.

Jennifer has never experienced prejudice or discrimination. “It’s rare for colleagues to discredit you, because they know your abilities. However, women can be victims of discrimination when it comes to getting hired, as employers think that young women are likely to stop working to have children.”

“Whatever you want to do, you can do it if you stay focused on your goal”

Jennifer thinks that it’s important to encourage young women and young men alike. “I come from a modest family in a tiny village, and now I’m working in this huge laboratory,” she says. “I’d like to spread this message: whatever you want to do, you can do it if you stay focused on your goal. We can achieve gender equality by giving everyone the same opportunities.”


Chiara Mariotti: “We have to explain to young people that science changes their daily life”

Chiara Mariotti, an Italian physicist with the National Institute for Nuclear Physics in Turin, works on the CMS experiment at the LHC (Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN)

“When I was studying at university, one of our professors told us that women couldn’t make it as physicists. And she was a woman herself! She recently admitted to me that, thanks to successful female physicists like us, she’s changed her mind.”

Chiara Mariotti, a physicist in the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, has been working in experimental particle physics for 25 years. She has led numerous study groups, notably a prestigious group searching for the Higgs boson. She defended her thesis in the early 1990s in Italy, when particle physics was an almost exclusively male field.

“I felt that I had to work harder, make more effort to earn the same recognition as the men,” she recalls. “I put up with comments and suffered prejudice, but, in general, these things happened less once I worked with the people directly.”

“We have to show young people that science is fascinating, that it opens up interesting career options.”

Chiara thinks that the field has changed for the better. “There are a lot more female physicists and physics students nowadays. I also hear fewer offensive comments among young people,” she stresses.

Nonetheless, the imbalance still needs to be addressed. Chiara often takes part in awareness-raising initiatives because she feels it’s increasingly necessary to explain the importance of scientific careers to young people.

“We have to show them that science is fascinating, that it opens up interesting career options. We also have to make them understand that science is essential for humanity, that it changes their daily life.”