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Atom and Eve: Fermilab’s First International Women’s Day

Monday, March 8th, dawned gloomy and forbidding at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Thick curtains of gray fog obscured Wilson Hall’s upper floors, giving the high rise the look of a modern-day retreat for a Tolkien villain. But the bleak atmosphere out of doors didn’t extend beyond the building’s sturdy walls. At least not inside the ROC, Fermilab’s remote operations center for the Large Hadron Collider’s CMS experiment, where some two-and-a-half dozen people gathered to kick off the laboratory’s first ever celebration of International Women’s Day.

Perhaps it was all the free coffee, or the palpable sense that, after weeks of intense planning, this thing was actually (finally!) happening, but the mood was downright convivial―more befitting a Friday evening cocktail hour than an overcast Monday morning.

To kick off Fermilab’s first International Women’s Day, deputy-director Young-Kee Kim greets CERN luminaries as director Pier Oddone and a roomful of Fermilab employees look on.

To kick off Fermilab’s first International Women’s Day, deputy-director Young-Kee Kim greets CERN luminaries as director Pier Oddone and a roomful of Fermilab employees look on.

At around 8:30 a.m., the crowd fanned out around one of the command center’s enormous computer screens, and the day’s festivities officially began. Via video conference, scientists from CERN sent a warm, trans-Atlantic greeting to their female colleagues, and, after some brief speeches on the importance of diversity, handed the floor over to Fermilab.
Deputy-director Young-Kee Kim highlighted women’s contributions to particle physics research over the laboratory’s lifetime. She also looked to the future. “I hope this day is not only a celebration, but an inspiration to young women considering a career in science,” she said.

Echoing Kim’s remarks, Director Pier Odonne wrapped up the video conference, and called upon the particle physics community to try to bring more women to the field.

After a round of applause and a flurry of camera flashes, the Europeans said adieu, and much of the Fermilab contingency filed next door for more coffee and a go at a box of pastries. Although women comprise only around 20% of Fermilab’s 1900 employees, there was momentary equal representation at the breakfast spread.

Particle physicist Pushpa Bhat lingered behind in the ROC, chatting with a knot of female colleagues. A 20-year Fermilab veteran who participated in the discovery of the top quark and managed Tevatron luminosity upgrades, Bhat said she thought a day recognizing women was a good thing. “Maybe in 10 or 20 years it won’t be an issue. But for now, it’s important. It’s a way to remind our male colleagues that we are a minority here, and we need their support,” Bhat said. “Sometimes you are the only woman in important meetings, and that can be challenging.”

But not everyone agrees with Bhat. International Women’s Day has been a source of controversy and even anger for some women, who don’t want to be singled out because of their gender or minority status. Some of the women at Fermilab want to be known as scientists—not women scientists.

But, despite the mixed feelings, the day was dedicated to women’s achievements. And to see some of those achievements first hand, a group of journalists milled around in the atrium just after lunch, hard hats tucked under their arms. They were waiting for a shuttle to take them to another of the day’s featured events—the underground tour, highlighting some of Fermilab’s neutrino experiments, where women are contributing at every stage.

Everyone trooped off the bus at the MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) above-ground facility, awkwardly adjusting hard hats. Aria Meyhoefer, the laboratory’s underground coordinator, delivered a safety briefing, and the journalists got a crash course in neutrino physics from Yale University physicist and MicroBooNE experiment spokesperson Bonnie Fleming.

In particle physics, a spokesperson is a leader on an experiment, democratically nominated and elected by all the scientists in the collaboration; election signifies deep involvement in the physics and leadership in the field. Five of the laboratory’s eight neutrino experiments currently have, or have had, female spokespersons.

MicroBooNE spokesperson Bonnie Fleming explains the secrets of neutrinos to a group of journalists inside the MINOS above-ground facility.

MicroBooNE spokesperson Bonnie Fleming explains the secrets of neutrinos to a group of journalists inside the MINOS above-ground facility.

Once Fleming explained the basics of neutrinos—the funny little particles that rarely interact with anything, but may hold the key to understanding why we live in a matter-dominated universe―the group piled into a large elevator for the shaky ride down through 330 feet of rock.

“I don’t deal well with heights,” one reporter said a little nervously. Just two minutes later, the elevator doors opened and the group emerged (unscathed) into the cathedral-sized hall that houses the massive detectors for Fermilab’s neutrino and dark matter experiments.

The smell of fresh concrete and fresh welds mingled with the smell of a male reporter’s cologne, motors and compressors roared, and physicist Debbie Harris, co-spokesperson for the MINERvA neutrino experiment, led the group on a dizzying trip through the bowels of a contraption the size of a small apartment building. She explained the experiment’s intricacies with infectious enthusiasm as she went. Up stairwells, down the other side, the tour wound past vast arrays of cables and wiring, blinking green lights, through the innards of the stop-sign-shaped neutrino detector―the ghostly particles’ first stop on their split second journey through the earth to a mine deep beneath northern Minnesota.

On the way back to the elevator, Harris pointed out three people up on lifts and ladders working on the detector; two of them were women. “That’s not because it’s Women’s Day, that’s just because it’s Monday,” Harris explained, laughing.

As the press prepared to leave, University of Rochester technician Janina Gielata climbed down from her perch to grab some fresh fiber-optic cables.

With safety glasses balanced on the brim of her hard hat, Gielata said she was familiar with the idea of a Women’s Day. “I’m from Poland,” she explained, where it’s a strong tradition, “so it’s nothing new to me,” she said. “Usually, the men you work with bring you a flower. A flower or a pastry. Something little,” she said. She shrugged. “Nothing big.”

To see the people and events in the story, view this photo gallery, chronicling International Women’s Day at Fermilab and CERN.

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By Andrea Mustain