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Honoring women in particle physics

CERN and Fermilab are celebrating International Women’s Day today, March 8, to honor the past and current contributions of women at the two laboratories. CERN has encouraged its staff and users to enable as many women as possible to be on shift in the LHC experiment control rooms and the CERN Control Centre. Poster exhibitions will also highlight the presence of women scientists in the laboratory. At Fermilab, women will take the lead in select control rooms and lead special guided tours focusing on how women have contributed to the experimental facilities at the Intensity Frontier.

A portion of the women on the ATLAS experiment, from the ATLAS International Women's Day poster.

A portion of the women on the ATLAS experiment, from the ATLAS International Women's Day poster

The idea for these celebrations began at CERN, with Pauline Gagnon from Indiana University, a scientist on the ATLAS experiment. Gagnon hopes that spotlighting women physicists at CERN will send an encouraging message to young women interested in science.

Webcams, accessible from the CERN Women’s Day website, show scenes from LHC control rooms throughout the day. The website also offers video interviews with women at CERN discussing why celebrating International Women’s Day is important to them. A poster series, also visible on the website, will present women from each of the LHC experiments and side by side photographs documenting the increasing presence of women scientists at CERN over the past several decades.

Paula Collins developed the concept for the LHCb experiment’s poster to focus on the varied roles that women in physics fulfill, whether at home or on the job. Collins believes that seeing women fulfill so many roles successfully is heartening for those considering a career in science, and points to her own sister as a model that has encouraged her. Collins, as both an experimental project leader and busy mother, is well aware of the complex balancing act that many women in the field face.

“When I heard about women’s day, I thought it was very exciting because I think it’s a positive gesture that CERN is able to make,” explains Collins. “I think that CERN can set the example to institutes and schools to show that it is really possible for women to be full partners in science and this is our opportunity to do it.”

Women of the Intensity Frontier unite at Fermilab

Women of the Intensity Frontier at Fermilab

At Fermilab, Women’s Day is part of a month-long Women’s History Month celebration. A videoconference at 8:30 a.m. Fermilab time, will link the laboratory to CERN for a live discussion on the contributions of women in physics. Speakers will include CERN’s Director-General Rolf Heuer and Coordinator for External Relations Felicitas Pauss; Fermilab’s Director Pier Oddone and Deputy Director Young-kee Kim of Fermilab; and experiment spokespeople Fabiola Gianotti of ATLAS and Guido Tonelli of CMS.

During Women's History Month at Fermilab, weekly lunchtime discussions will focus on the experiences of women during various decades at the laboratory. Donn Hicks will be speaking about her experiences during the 1980’s. Hicks began working with Fermilab in 1980 with the technical division, where she was the second woman in her group. Her curiosity and enthusiasm for her work have driven her to push through many challenges.

Hicks was encouraged by Fermilab’s Karen Kephart and Dan Bollinger to pursue a degree in physics. In 2000, she completed her degree while working full time at Fermilab and fulfilling her duties as a single mother.

“The important thing is to reach out and learn as much as you can from those around you,” advises Hicks to young women pursuing science.

The task of encouraging young women to pursue an interest in physics has proven difficult in many countries, including the United States. At Fermilab, a lecture on this topic will be led by Professor Sandra Hanson of Catholic University. The lecture “Gender, Race and Science Education,” is free and open to the public and will be held on March 9.

International Women's Day poster from the CMS experiment

International Women's Day poster from the CMS experiment

Chiara Mariotti, who encouraged Women’s Day participation on the CMS experiment at CERN, can recall how when she first came to CERN twenty years ago, there were far fewer women and their experiences were not easy. The experience of women in physics is changing however, and she hopes that this event will send that message to young women interested in science. She herself credits female role models in science as being formative in her pursuit of physics:

“We can show that it is possible for women to have a career in physics and it is possible to come to CERN. It’s possible to have a life and a job and be successful. I was quite lucky because I came from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare in Torino, an institute which is about 40 percent women. My advisor was a woman, my professors were women. Having a role model, I think, is really important.”