Woman in Tech, How a Woman Performs Research Work in CERN and EPFL

by | Feb 16, 2021 | Fempreneurship

Switzerland is among the best countries for scientists. With its strong polytechnic schools like EPFL and ETH Zurich which are among the Top 10 world’s best universities as well as with the international research organizations like CERN, it opens a lot of opportunities for scientists. 

How is it to be a female in Tech? What opportunities have femscientists and what projects they manage? We had a talk with Tatiana Pieloni, who is engaged in the research projects in CERN and EPFL, about the recent tendencies and about the differences of the working atmosphere between these two institutions. 

Photo: Tatiana Pieloni

SUISSEPIC: What do you do in CERN? 

Tatiana Pieloni: I am a Senior Scientist working for the Laboratory of Particle Accelerator Physics of the EPFL (LPAP) and the Swiss Institute of Accelerator Research and Technology (CHART). At CERN I work as a physicist on topics related to the Large Hadron Collider and to the Future Circular Collider design (FCC). I study the electromagnetic interactions of the two colliding proton beams trying to improve the understanding of these effects, improve the actual LHC performances and physics reach. Since 2016 I am participating in the conceptual and design studies of the Future Circular Colliders. In addition I also work on the application of machine learning techniques to data analysis and accelerator design.

The field of application of my studies and work is the participation in the study of the nature of subatomic particles and radiation that constitute our known world. We design and study how we can built this extremely unique “microscopes”, particle colliders, to look into the matter constituent and to understand deeper the laws of physics.

SUISSEPIC: How many members of the team you have? Do you manage the team? If yes, what is difficult / what is easy in communication?

Tatiana Pieloni: In the team we are 5 people, plus 2 scientific guests, an honorary Professor and every semester we have several under-graduated students working on different topics. I manage scientifically the team of post-docs 2 people, 2 PhD students and now 3 under-graduated students, the laboratory is under the direction of professor M. Seidel.

I start from the easy part of managing:

  • when you start working on a topic in science the motivation is what guides you and discussing about the results one achieves with simulations or calculations is fun and this is the easy part of my job. Working together and sharing is very positive. Working with youngers is also very reach because we keep learning from each other and they normally bring new ideas.
  • In research and academics, it is very difficult to see prospective because of the very few positions and therefore discussing about long term prospective is more difficult. In addition, many studies are possible thanks to special funding allocated for them as a responsible of the study to guarantee continuation and the needed resources I have to follow several applications for funding on which post-docs and PhD students’ salaries depend on. It is difficult to keep the people motivation when very few possibilities are present.

Photo: Tatiana Pieloni

SUISSEPIC: Where did you work before CERN?

Tatiana Pieloni: I arrived at CERN as a stagier back in 2002 as part of my Master studies and since then I have been working for CERN, the Paul Scherrer Institute Villigen and for EPFL. Being an accelerator physicist I have been always working around CERN accelerators projects or design studies.

First on the components for the LHC the superconducting magnets, then on the LHC, on the future up-grade High Luminosity Project, on several design projects as the Compact Linear Collider (CLIC) and more recently on the design of the Future Circular Collider for the after LHC era.

SUISSEPIC: Do you combine you research with the work in EPFL?

Tatiana Pieloni: Absolutely. I am an accelerator physicist and at EPFL we do not have accelerators while CERN represents a laboratory with so many machines and so many hands on opportunities for our team. CERN represents a very reach environment where to train the next generation of accelerator physicists because they can learn with direct experience on real and very advanced technologies. CERN is unique in this sense and EPFL due to its vicinity has a special opportunity that our team can profit of. Since 2008 we started introducing under-graduated students to onsite small laboratory projects at CERN, so-called Travaux Pratique in Physics. The students appreciate enormously the fact of being involved in such a dynamic environment and by literally seeing what they have been studying on textbooks. It is very motivating and gives also the possibility to tailor the project to the real interests and attitudes of the student, which is what concerns me the most. Keep students motivation and interest for the accelerator physics world. They are the future of our knowledge; they will be one day pushing to a higher level our knowledge.

SUISSEPIC: What are the main advantages of working in the international environment and the university environment? What is difficult/ was is easy?

Tatiana Pieloni: Working at CERN is of course extraordinary because of the multinational environment and cultural exchange that occurs. This helps to easily feel integrated and be part of the organization, as well as, to develop important communication skills.  It’s also a multidisciplinary environment, which makes it easy to collaborate and work with various different experts and wider our knowledge.   

   However I still see as a big challenge the significant gender imbalance. This was something quite shocking when I arrived at CERN from my university in Milan where in Physics we had a 50-50-gender ratio. At CERN this ratio is very low and in the years I have not see big changes. I have seen the number of female students increasing but very little change at more experienced positions. And this is quite evident and demotivating for younger woman approaching the field. I think in this respect CERN should do more also with respect to work-family balance, a more healthy environment in terms of workload etc. There is not a one solution but I think that little changes can only improve the situation. Another difficult point is that sometimes due to the very big structure it is harder for the personal contribution to stand out. 

At the University the gender unbalance is present as well but over the last decades I have seen improvements in the number of female students, role model positions, a lot of mentoring activities and a very flexible working set up for work-family balance. It will take time but I think EPFL is on the right track. At EPFL a more international environment started developing thanks to exchange programs among students and thanks to the recruiting of teachers and Professors worldwide. Also at the university I see a much stronger interest and push for interdisciplinary projects among different laboratories. There is a very good atmosphere and people genuinely are happy to help.  While sometime I had the feeling that at CERN there is quite some competition between groups and a much smaller collaborative effort.

Photo: Tatiana Pieloni

SUISSEPIC: What can you say about female researchers in Switzerland? Are they supported? Which environment is the best for a female to make a career of a researcher?

Tatiana Pieloni: What I personally experience in the Science sector is that females always need some mentor to give the right wait to their scientific projects and career. And to some extend to protect and boost their careers especially during delicate periods and situations as for example maternity leaves and family duties.

As physicists and scientists we are competitive at younger age till the PHD level and first post-doc (around 30-35 years old), I do not see any difference between genders in our environment. Actually at the University in Italy, country where I have studied Physics, the ratio between females and males is around 50%. No differences at all.

In Switzerland is a bit different, I see it at the University level. At physics courses you have much less females than males, we are around 30% but I have seen over the last 15 years a net increase. I think this must have a profound root into the local culture. There is reluctances to science among females which has to be tailored down to a long lasting idea that science is not a female thing. While later at the post-doc level (30 years old), females, are forced to compete with male colleagues, during our biological ticking that brings us to: should we have a baby a family or should we not? And there is the big step, no way to compete when you have to carry a pregnancy, a maternity leave with all it’s mental difficulties and hormonal fluctuations, then back to work with a family at home you would like to take care of.

The number of female researchers has definitely increased over the last 10 years that I am in the field at the student level. More and more female researchers work at international organizations as students, PhD students, and fellows. However, very few women, even to these days, can be found in leadership positions. 

SUISSEPIC: What personally motivates you to grow up and develop?

Tatiana Pieloni: Mainly these 4 things:

  • I love physics and I really enjoy in a very childhood way the discussions and understanding of results and studies. It is extremely motivating to realize you understand something new every day. It gives you this childhood feeling of surprise and happiness.
  • I love working with students, I like seeing in them the motivation I had when I decided to go for physics. It is quite inspiring and they also have something to teach you something. By teaching you understand better and you create interest.
  • As a female in science I try always to motivate female students to pursue the scientific career. We should be seeing more women in leadership roles in the future, I try to give my contribution. 
  • My daughters. The only way we can help our kids to pursue their happiness is giving them a model. I do show them I try my best to pursue my objectives, dreams and mainly what I like the most, without giving up if something is not as we wish. To reach the point there are several ways if one is closed just make a turn and you’ll get where you want.

SUISSEPIC: What is the meaning of success to you?

Tatiana Pieloni: I am not only a physicist neither only a mum. I have a lovely family and a very inspiring job in physics and … I didn’t have to choose only one. Many times was very difficult but one should never give up on what is important and make things happen.