Spotlight on stories from women and girls in science

To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, female scientists from CERN share their experiences of starting and building a career in science


Spotlight on stories from women and girls in science
The participants in this year's International Day of Women and Girls in Science at CERN. From left to right: Manya Agarwal, Roberta Cardinale, Line Le, Serena Maccolini, Sarah Porteboeuf-Houssais, Sabrina Schadegg, and Valentina Zaccolo. (Image: CERN)

To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, seven female scientists from CERN share their experiences of starting and building a career in STEM. They told us about their first memory of science, the coolest thing they have worked on, and whether they would still choose a STEM-related field if given the chance to go back in time. (Here’s a clue: the answer was always – undoubtedly – yes.)

Manya Agarwal, technical student

Manya is a technical student from India, working as a software developer at CERN. Her job is to develop a tool to make it simpler for control-systems engineers to build specifications for all cooling and ventilation plants. She spends her day either building new features for the software or fixing known issues in the code.

“When I was studying and growing up, I always felt I did not have enough role models who were like me. This is why I want to share a lot of stories about women in STEM, who are leading their firms, who are doing a lot of cool stuff with technology... A lot of people like me could benefit from those stories.”

Roberta Cardinale, physicist

Roberta is a physicist from Italy and member of the LHCb collaboration at CERN. As a researcher with the University of Genoa and the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), Roberta is currently working on upgrading the “coolest detector of the LHCb experiment”, the Ring-Imaging Cherenkov Detector (RICH), used to identify charged particles.

Roberta is usually busy between teaching and the research activities associated with the immense task of analysing the data collected at the Large Hadron Collider by the LHCb experiment.  But some deviation from this routine can also happen: “When I am at CERN for beam tests or experiment shifts, my day is completely different. We have just few hours of sleep, working hard to ensure the data collection and the correct operation of the detector.”

Not all days look the same, but one thing Roberta makes sure is that her discoveries with the experiment also leave time for other discoveries with her young daughter.

Line Le, technical student

Line is a Norwegian microelectronics student at the University of Oslo and a technical student with the Beams department at CERN. Line assists in the development of control systems for various experiments at ISOLDE, the Radioactive Ion Beam Facility.

Several times a week, Line can be found in the ISOLDE control room or in the ISOLDE offline accelerator complex, working with physicists and operators or testing different systems for the experiments. For Line, the coolest part of her work is all the new things she learns from colleagues and friends, and how truly innovative solutions can come from the collaboration across different domains. “I know of someone with a background in art restoration, who used physics technology as a means of restoration.”

If there was one thing Line would like to do as a female scientist, it would be to inspire young women to visualise the road ahead if they would like to go into STEM, like the young women in books she would read when she was younger.

Serena Maccolini, physicist

Serena is an Italian PhD student in Nuclear and Subnuclear Physics at the University of Bologna working in the LHCb collaboration at CERN. A memorable day on the job for her were the first beam tests after the second long shutdown (LS2) at the Large Hadron Collider in October 2020 and the successful recording of the first proton-proton collision events at the LHCb experiment.

Serena’s job is to test the Standard Model of particle physics and try to explain possible anomalies. Coming up with inventive explanations for the observable phenomena is something Serena started as a young student, when one of her teachers carried out a tricky experiment that involved an instrument of unknown composition. “I want to contribute to a better understanding of the universe that hosts us.”

With her story, Serena wants to remind all young students that there is room for everyone in science.

Sarah Porteboeuf-Houssais, physicist

Sarah is a French physicist working with the ALICE collaboration. A teacher-researcher at the Laboratoire de Physique de Clermont (Université Clermont-Auvergne / CNRS-IN2P3), Sarah arrived at CERN to work on the installation of a new detector known as the Muon Forward Tracker, a half a square metre-wide pixel detector constituted of more than 1 000 silicon sensors. This year, Sarah is also ALICE’s Deputy Run Coordinator, being responsible for the data-taking operations of the ALICE detector.

“What I like most about the job are the excitement of taking new data to make progress in science, and to collaborate with various people on-site.”

Sabrina Schadegg, environmental engineer

Sabrina is a Swiss environmental engineer with the Occupational Health & Safety and Environmental Protection Unit at CERN. While no two days look the same, Sabrina often supports her colleagues in the environmental domains such as water, soil, and air in applying the appropriate regulations and preventive measures on different projects and activities. Other days are spent in the field conducting inspections or for environmental monitoring.

Sabrina’s knowledge of CERN started well before her arrival eight years ago. “My first memory of science was one of my first physics lessons. My teacher was a physicist who collaborated with CERN and had no perception of conventional teaching at all. He taught us one of Newton's laws by throwing a student’s watch out of the window. The watch, that had been beeping all the time during class, generously served science and, surprisingly, it didn’t break.”

Valentina Zaccolo, physicist

Valentina is a member of the ALICE collaboration at CERN. Working as a researcher with the University of Trieste and the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), Valentina currently studies the quark-gluon plasma, a state of matter believed to be formed in the early stages of the Universe.

With the next physics run starting in 2022 after a period of three and a half years spent on major upgrades, “I am really looking forward to it. There is so much that we still don’t understand.” These days, Valentina doesn’t get many opportunities to look at the data herself, which is one of her favourite aspects of her job. Instead, she supports new students and helps other researchers perform their data analysis.

The global dimension of science is one of the things that surprised Valentina. “I didn’t know that getting into science would allow me to work with people from all around the world. I work daily with people from China to the Americas.”

Do you want to hear more from women working at CERN?

Watch Sarah Porteboeuf-Houssais, Manya Agarwal and Sabrina Schadegg tell their own story.