Published 9 January 2020 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research at #LINO19: Maria Żurek from Poland

Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists who participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter)

Lindau Alumna Maria Żurek is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, USA. She is a particle physicist who tries to understand why our Universe exists as it is. In her research, she studies the structure of matter at the most fundamental level at experiments using large particle colliders, such as the STAR experiment at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. In her current project, she is seeking for an answer to the question: how does the spin of the proton arises from the spins and orbital angular momenta of quarks and gluons?

Maria participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. She was part of a panel discussion of science careers with Nobel Laureates Wolfgang Ketterle, Bill Phillips and Donna Strickland. You can find a recording of the panel discussion in the mediatheque.

Enjoy the interview with Maria and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I decided to choose physics as the field of my studies, because it was a subject which could not only describe the world around us, but actually explain it. I wanted to know “why?”, not only “how?”. Also, I had an extremely charismatic physics teacher, and I wanted to be like him. I still remember a few situations that made me think ‘Wow! Maybe I’d like to be a physicist in the future’.

  1. I was absolutely fascinated by the experiments showing the principles of electromagnetism during physics classes in high school. The experiment I remember most vividly was the demonstration of Lenz’s law.
  2.  I was amazed by the stories that my teacher would tell about famous physicists at the beginning of the 20th century, when a completely new discipline in physics, nuclear physics, was born.
  3. While I was reviewing material from my physics classes, I was amazed by the fact that everything had a logical explanation. It was like a sophisticated game: I was trying to challenge myself to ask all the questions I could imagine about the subject I was studying, and then try to find the proper answer based on what I knew.
  4. I absolutely loved classes explaining Bohr’s model of the atom. It was my first encounter with quantum mechanics, and everything was soooo intriguing.

Who are your role models?

The strong women pioneers in radiochemistry and nuclear physics described, e.g., in the book Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity. In particular, Ellen Gleditsch, a Norwegian radiochemist, who was not only an excellent scientist, but also a great mentor, teacher and activist for Women in Science. And, of course, my mentors who were inspiring and supporting me through my career up to now: my teachers, my thesis supervisors, my colleagues, and tutors. I wouldn’t be here if not my high school physics teacher, Wojciech Cyganik, my internship mentor at Fermilab, Prof. Michael Albrow, my bachelor thesis supervisor and colleague, Dr. Aleksandra Wrońska, my PhD supervisors Dr. Volker Hejny and Prof. Hans Stroeher, and my current PI, Dr. Ernst Sichtermann. When I look around me I would like to be in the future like my Division Head in the Lab – Prof. Barbara Jacak, a great scientist and a truly amazing person!

Maria with the original 10-inch bubble chamber build by Nobel Laureate L. Alvares, which she has found in one of Berkeley Lab conference rooms. Photo courtesy of Maria Żurek.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I joined physics studies at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland. During my physics studies, I quickly realized that being a good student is very different from being a good scientist. I was engaged in many small research activities to get a proper training. I discovered my passion for performing experiments during lab classes, and I had a chance to check how it is to work in a large national lab during summer internships at Fermilab, IL, USA. This was my first meeting with the world of particle physics under the supervision of Prof. Michael Albrow, and I absolutely loved it! I ended up visiting Fermilab every summer for the next four years to continue my project. At the university, I was actively working in a physics-student association, where I met a bunch of passionate people, and got experience in managing student projects. I obtained my MSc degree in physics and school-teacher qualifications at the age of 23.
I decided to continue my scientific path as a PhD student at the Research Center Juelich, which is one of the largest national labs in Germany. It was a big change for me to move abroad, but I’m glad I did that. My project gave me lots of hands-on experience, I met an amazing international community of researchers, and I was traveling around the world for conferences. I obtained a PhD degree from the University of Cologne at the age of 26, and I stayed one year more at my institute for a short research appointment. During this year, I was applying for many postdoc programs, and I have to admit, it was a difficult period of my life. The uncertainty of the future, the pressure of making an optimal decision about my postdoc, failing positions I thought I was a very good fit for… With the help of mentors and friends I managed to go through it, and eventually, I got the opportunity to join Berkeley Lab as a postdoctoral scholar, and here I am!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

Probably the recent 2 weeks of night shifts at my experiment at Brookhaven National Lab. There was some problem with the AC in the control room, and everyone was freezing! Yes, I know, it’s a very bad joke. It’s a very tough question. I like all the projects I was working on so far. Scientifically, I think I was completely hooked by my first analysis in Fermilab, where I was working on the so-called diffractive processes in proton-proton collisions. It was my first meeting with particle physics in an amazing international environment. I was working on many different projects during my career so far, and I think that the coolest thing about physics is that it’s so varied, and there are so many fascinating areas one can contribute to. I love seeing how many of the projects I’ve worked on, at first glance so different from each other, help to understand the nature of strong interactions from different points of view.

Maria at the STAR experiment at Brookhaven National Lab. Photo courtesy of Maria Żurek

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

I feel proud when our common work in collaborations brings us scientific success. I feel proud when I see how scientists from around the world help each other exploring the frontiers of our knowledge. Really, I think that there is nothing more beautiful in science than the teamwork of an international and diverse community, driven by the curiosity for how our world works.
Throughout my career I’ve been struggling with impostor syndrome. That’s why I’ve never felt that this pride was really immense. I felt proud when I defended my thesis with the highest mark, or when I received the Excellence Prize for my thesis from my research center, or when I’ve been selected to participate in the discussion panel at LiNo19 about career planning in science. But I feel equally proud when my pupils are amazed by physics demonstrations I show, or I see they understand the basics of light diffraction. Prizes and awards are nice, but there is much more in our lives we should be proud of.

What is a “day in the life” of Maria like?

I’m not a morning person. I like starting my day with oatmeal and a cup of coffee. I’m at the Lab between 9 and 10 am, depending on my meetings. My work can be very different from day to day. In general, I analyze data from particle collisions to understand more about their properties. Usually, I’m at Berkeley Lab in front of my computer writing software needed for interpretation and visualization of my data. My Tuesdays are always packed with meetings and seminars. One thing I cannot get used to in the US are meetings during lunch time, when I think one should take a break, eat their lunch without hurry, and interact with colleagues. It’s simply healthier for you! Depending on the stage of my project and time during the year, I write publications summarizing my findings, I prepare talks to present them during conferences and meetings, I supervise students, and I write plans for future experiments I want to perform. In the afternoon, I try to have a break for a short run in our hilly lab to recharge my batteries. My days are often finishing with meetings with my amazing Berkeley Lab Postdoc Association team, working on projects for our postdoc community. I take a shuttle bus from the Lab to Berkeley downtown usually at 8:20 pm. However, I always stress that this work schedule my conscious decision. I don’t like bringing my work home, and I simply can afford working in this time mode.

When I am at the actual experimental facility at Brookhaven National Lab, together with colleagues we control data collection and fix any problem that pops up during measurements. As an active member of a large collaboration, one usually has to take about 2 weeks of shifts at your experiment per year. I absolutely love it. I think it’s mostly because I like working in a team and interacting with people. It’s always a huge kick of motivation for me. However, it’s also a tiring period of time, especially if you work from midnight to 7 in the morning (or, as we call it at STAR, “the owl shift”).

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

For a long time in my life, I was thinking that my success is related only to my research, and that I only matter as much as my project. Now, as a postdoc, I think that my worth is more important that my work. Working with and for our postdoc community at Berkeley Lab redefined my idea of success. Success for me is being pushed forward by curiosity and working on research I like doing with the collaboration of supportive, creative, diverse, and professional people in a healthy environment.

I would love to continue my career in academia, ideally in a national lab or a big research center. I understand that applying for a faculty position requires building a solid preparation well in advance, understanding the responsibilities of a group leader, and fitting in with the culture of the institution you apply to. I work on my research vision and transition to a fully independent scientist, but I’m also aware of the success rate of getting academic positions, which is about 5% in the USA.

I think that the scientific community should finally get rid of seeing choosing a non-academic career path as a failure. There is a multitude of jobs which are essential to allow scientists to actually do “science” and make our working environment healthy. We need science communicators, advocates and managers, as well as close collaboration with industry and teaching institutions. We can build state-of-the-art experimental facilities, invest in large computing centers, create revolutionary theories and ideas, but as long as we do not have an educated generation of enthusiastic young people to continue our work, a society which understands the need for basic research, governments which support us, and a work community which is diverse and inclusive, we — and, indeed, humanity as a whole — cannot expect to achieve any long-lasting progress. Science needs its soldiers in a variety of career paths, and if not in academia, I will be one of these soldiers in science communication or education.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I like organizing events for our postdoc community at the Lab, from social events, to career-development projects. This year in July we organized the very first Berkeley Lab Postdoc Career Fair. It’s a huge event that we collaborated on with our postdoc office, and I’m extremely proud of it. But we also have many smaller monthly activities, such as cultural lunches, where postdocs from around the world tell about the places they come from and their cultures. I also love science outreach. Sharing my passion for physics, especially with students, brings me lots of motivation. I participate frequently, usually a few times per month, in science festivals, classroom activities and other outreach events. I collaborate on a regular basis with the Berkeley Lab K-12 education office and other SciEd organizations from the Bay Area. I’m happy that I can use my teaching qualifications in practice, and it allows me to feel the same excitement I felt back when I was teaching middle school students in Poland. I’m also a huge cinema fan, foodie, and I love traveling. Well, living in Berkeley and having 3 different classic cinemas within 15 min walk, hundreds of restaurants, and being surrounded by the breathtaking nature of California, I feel like I’ve found my place in the world (at least for the next 2 years. I also like changes!). 

What advice do you have for other women interested in science?

First of all, go for it! The world of science is fascinating and it can bring lots of fulfillment. It’s an adventure which will allow you to better understand how everything around us works. There will be ups and downs, for sure. Search for good mentors who will help you on this path. Choose the people around you wisely. Passion is “contagious”, so search for tutors who are fascinated with their work. It will bring you joy for working with them and your projects. Don’t believe people saying that science is not for girls. I’m a girl, I wear make-up and dresses, and I am a physicist. You can be a scientist like me. You don’t have to be a genius to do science. Try new things that spark your interest, and stick to the ones that bring you joy. And remember, science needs you, science needs your ideas, science needs women; because only in a diverse environment we can truly push the boundaries of our knowledge.

Maria during one of the Berkeley Lab K-12 outreach activities. Photo courtesy of Maria Żurek.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science?

The Standard Model of physics which describes the interactions between fundamental particles is the most precise physics theory in the history of humankind. The recent discovery of the Higgs Boson helped to complete it. However, despite its beauty, the Standard Model cannot explain many things, such as why neutrinos have mass, why there is such a huge matter-antimatter imbalance in the Universe, what is Dark Matter, why gravity is so weak, what is Dark Energy, and more. I think that the next breakthrough in physics will lead us to formulating an extension of the Standard Model, and I hope that I will be able to experience it during my life.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

The academic environment should be accountable for addressing diversity, equity and inclusion by acknowledging that everyone can have bias. To really make a change, we should be honest with others and open to criticism. We should take action to reduce gender bias in schools and universities, in grant and prize committees, hiring procedures, and evaluation systems. We should approach it scientifically. In our research we work on reducing biases in our data, and we should aim for the same goal for the algorithms that decide who is promoted or rewarded, or who is seen as a good student.

On top of that we should work at the institutional level to make our academic environment safe, healthy, and supportive for women. Sufficiently long parental leaves, programs supporting returning to research after a career break, the possibility of using part of grant money for childcare, family-related costs or extra help in the lab for caregivers, special travel grants: these are some examples of policies that universities and grant givers should establish. We shouldn’t also forget about career-development and mentorship programs thoughtfully designed to connect successful women with each other and support them in a male-dominated, and unfortunately often hostile, environment. 

Leading up to #LINO19, Maria wrote about dealing with the imposter syndrome for our blog. Find the article here.

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.