This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).
Lindau Alumna Nadezda Chernyavskaya from Russia is a PhD student at the ETH Zurich. Nadezda is performing research in particle physics – the study of the fundamental constituents of matter and their interactions. Particle physics is governed by a theory called the Standard Model, which can explain all visible matter in the universe from the tiniest scale of elementary particles like electrons to the scale of the entire universe. However, visible matter comprises less than only 5% of the universe, and there are still many open questions for scientists to answer! She is working for the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, where they smash very highly energetic protons together. They use very large and complex detectors to record the results of these collisions, and huge computing resources to analyze high-volume data. They investigate what were the conditions at the origin of the universe, and what is the future of the universe.
Nadezda Chernyavskaya participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2019. You can find a Facebook Live interview with her here. Nadezda also wrote about her experience at #LINO19 for the ETH Zürich blog.
Enjoy the interview with Nadezda and get inspired:
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
When I was a child already from a primary school I really enjoyed solving complex math problems. Every year I participated in the competition Mathematical Kangaroo. I remember looking forward to it and being very excited about new problems every year. As I started my secondary school, there were new subjects that I became very interested in, particularly in astronomy, computer science and linguistics. It may not be a very straightforward combination of subjects, but what they all have in common is many interesting problems and puzzles to solve. Studying these subjects was interesting, but the most fun was to participate in the International Science Olympiads in these subjects. I remember coming first in the astronomy Olympiad in my hometown after the first year of classes. I was very happy and proud of myself and it definitely motivated me to study. Next, physics and computer science classes started. I became very interested in both subjects, and I was lucky enough to have additional programming courses taught in my school every Sunday morning.
I kept participating in the Olympiads but with time I concentrated on only math, computer science and physics. I then enrolled in the Distance Learning School of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT or Phystech). Students receive study materials and problem sheets prepared by professors from MIPT. The goal of the problem sheets is to teach students to solve complex problems that require additional preparation and thinking outside the box. Every year I received four or five problem sheets in physics and math that had to be solved within a certain deadline and then sent back for corrections. It was a lot of additional work throughout the year, but I did enjoy it especially when after several days of thinking and trying I could finally solve complex problems and the solutions would always turn out to be so elegant! As secondary school was coming to an end, I realized that the science that fascinated me the most was physics. I understood that math and computer science can be excellent tools for physics, but it was physics that for me was the science of them all. Physics offered everything I found so interesting: complex problems and puzzles, and a physical description of the surrounding world. For me, physics was intriguingly the most basic and yet also the most complex science. From there my choice was clear, I wanted to study physics.
Who are your role models?
My role models are definitely my parents. They did their best to teach me what they knew, but always gave me the freedom to study what I found most interesting. My dad was a physicist and my mom is an engineer. Growing up, I was always amazed by my dad’s ability to solve any problem, and my mom’s ability to fix everything that was broken. My dad always knew an answer to every question, and liked to have long conversations. He would talk to me about his experiments of measuring the neutron lifetime long before I could really grasp all the technical and scientific details of the experiment itself. But this did not matter, because he would pose a question of how something can be solved, and then guide me through the theoretical process of finding the solution. With my mom, on the other hand, I could see the direct experimental implementation of problem solving. If something broke or needed to be fixed in the house, she would know exactly how to fix it and would do so with whatever was available. And it would last forever. I think the combination of these two traits is very important for a physicist. I have been always very proud of my parents and definitely have always been looking up to them and learning from them.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
In secondary school I realized that I wanted to become a physicist. The choice of university was very clear – Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT or Phystech). It was founded in 1951 by brilliant Russian academics, and the first professors there were Nobel Prize winners Pyotr Kapitsa, Nikolay Semenov and Lev Landau. MIPT has preserved its educational system from the very beginning. This unique system combines fundamental science and engineering disciplines, placing emphasis on student research starting from the very first year of university. My dad graduated from the same institute, and it always had a special place in his heart. He always used to say that Phystech teaches you how to solve any problem from first principles. Once you know the first principles, you can figure out anything, regardless of how narrow the specialization of a particular problem is.
Since I was sure that I wanted to go to MIPT, I decided to prepare for it by changing my high school in a little town in the suburbs of Moscow to one of the best science-oriented high schools in Russia – The Advanced Educational Scientific Center – Kolmogorov’s boarding school of Moscow State University (MSU). The educational structure of Kolmogorov’s school is akin to the university system. It was not easy in the beginning. I was the best in the class in my previous high school and here I had to work very hard to be able to follow the lectures on new university subjects and solve Olympiads level math and physics problems. One of the most important influences on me in this school was my physics teacher, Ilya Lukyanov. He was a young professor from MSU who decided to pursue his own way of teaching. We had lectures and then more lectures instead of problem sessions. He told us, “I will not teach you how to solve problems, you should figure this out by yourselves”. One homework task he assigned was to recite by heart a threepage poem, ‘The Scythians’, by Alexander Blok. Given that I had one year to prepare for the math and physics Olympiads to get accepted to MIPT, this definitely seemed like a disturbing and scary approach in the beginning. I had to go through a lot of scientific literature and problems from previous Olympiads on my own to train myself how to think about and solve complex problems. It was a difficult year, but I managed to successfully solve the Olympiads created for the entrance exam to MIPT – and get accepted to my first-and-only choice university. The most important lesson I learned from Dr. Lukyanov is that if you want to learn something you have to work it out yourself, no one will upload knowledge to your brain.
Next, I started at the Department of General and Applied Physics at MIPT. The department is split in six groups, each specializing in different branches of physics. Students had to choose in which branch of physics they wanted to conduct research already at the entrance interview to the university. After long and careful consideration, I chose experimental elementary particle physics. I was 17 years old when I made this choice and I have never regretted it. At MIPT, student research is very important. Normally, students start their own research in the third year, but our group was offered specialized courses at the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics already in our freshman year. We happily agreed and were traveling once a week to the other end of the city (and one should not forget that Moscow is not a small city) to learn about particle physics. Prof. Mikhail Danilov was the head of the institute at that time, but always found time for research and teaching. He is passionate and enthusiastic. He even addressed us, a group of sophomores, as scientific colleagues rather than students. He said, ‘I very much hope that my address as ‘colleagues’ is appropriate – after all, you and I are interested in how our world works and we are ready to devote our lives to it.’ I think this address encapsulates the approaches to research and teaching we experienced in MIPT and ITEP with Prof. Mikhail Danilov. Students were not treated as inexperienced youngsters who have to listen quietly at the lectures, but rather as colleagues participating in the same research.In my opinion, collaboration and approaches like this are very important for research because it gives people freedom to think and freedom to invent.
I then continued my path of becoming a particle physicist. I spent my summers doing internships in particle physics first in 2014 at DESY and then in 2015 at CERN. For my Masters degree I decided to pursue a dedicated M.Sc. in high energy physics at ETH Zürich. ETH Zürich is another remarkable example of a place where researchers are given freedom to conduct their research. I was welcomed by Prof. Günther Dissertori to his group, and was told to benefit to the maximum extent from the collaboration that was already there. After I did my second year of the M.Sc program in École Polytechnique Paris, I decided to come back to ETH Zürich to pursue PhD in particle physics. Since the age of 17 I have been fascinated by particle physics, and I am very grateful to all the people who have made their impact on my life that brought me to where I am now.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Since 2015, I have been working for the CMS experiment at the LHC. This is definitely the coolest experiment I have gotten to be involved in. At the LHC, we collide very highly energetic protons. The energy is so high that the protons get completely smashed and the particles inside the protons interact with each other. From these interactions, new particles are created. We can detect these particles in the particle detectors that surround the collision point. One such detector is the Compact Muon Solenoid detector I am working with. Our detector records what’s happening right after proton collisions. Like a giant high-speed camera, it is taking millions of 3D pictures of what is being created from the collisions up to 40 million times every second. The CMS detector weights 14,000 tons, is 15 meters high and 21 meters long. The detector has six main subsystems and overall about 100 million hardware channels. With the coherent work of the whole CMS collaboration we can transform electrical signals recorded by our hardware to particles and see interactions of these particles that recreate the conditions that existed 10^-10 seconds (one ten billionth of a second) after the Big Bang. This kind of experiment would never be possible without an international collaboration. I am very happy that I could make my contribution to this project.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
Being chosen to participate in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2019 dedicated to Physics was a moment of great pride for me. It was the moment when I realized that my work was recognized not only in my accustomed particle physics community but also in the broader community. I felt very proud to be able to participate in this exceptional event and share my passion and knowledge with other participants.
What is a “day in the life” of Nadezda like?
I start my day by getting to my office and checking my emails. I work for the CMS Collaboration at CERN, that has more than 3000 members from about 200 institutes and universities from more than 40 countries. This means that while I am sleeping at night in Geneva, at the same time people in the US and Asia are working hard. I see if there is anything urgent that requires my immediate input. Most of the time I am working on data analysis of the high energy particle collisions we record at the LHC. This involves working in the office at the computer, writing different computational code, and reading scientific papers. Physics research at the LHC normally requires working in groups with many people. In the afternoons I often have different group meetings, most of them with people connecting from different time zones via video calls. I also always try to attend interesting colloquia and seminars we have organized at CERN to broaden my horizons and learn about different research areas. At lunch time I normally meet with my friends working on different experiments at CERN and have a little break from work. Sometimes I participate in the ‘Lunch Collider’ project at CERN. I sign up for a lunch in the morning and just before lunch time I get randomly coupled with someone else who signed up. I think it is a nice way to meet new people working at CERN and have a nice lunch break together.
Driving inspiration from Lunch Collider this year we also organized a Dance Collider project at CERN. Twice a week we meet at lunchtime in one of our big experimental halls at CERN and dance different styles chosen by popular vote the night before. I try to go when my work allows, it is not only a nice break but also a good boost of energy and muscle workout for my otherwise sedentary workday. I try to leave work around 6 or 7 pm and go to the gym or to my dancing classes. I try to keep my evenings work-free. Of course sometimes I need to work in the evenings and on the weekends, but when there is no need I stop and enjoy the other wonderful things life has to offer.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I want to pursue the search for the unknown, and in my lifetime see the answers to at least some of the tantalizing open questions we have in physics. Regardless of my job position or title, I see myself always working in research. I have always been motivated by the unpredictability of scientific research. From an idea to its implementation there is a long and windy path of trial and error, which quite often can yield an interesting finding that was never intended. Every day is different when you do research. You can never get bored when there are so many open questions to answer. Piece by piece scientists are increasing the collective knowledge of humanity and this is very rewarding and exciting!
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
There are so many interesting things in the world, and I like to do many! Art, in its many forms, is my other passion and a big aspect of my life. I love opera, classical ballet, and classical music. I am lucky to live in a place with a good opera house. I always buy an annual subscription in advance and I am always looking forward to every upcoming performance. I am very interested in painting and the history of painting. I go to art exhibitions every time I have an opportunity, and surround myself with books on the history of art. I also like latin dances, and I can always find the energy to go dancing during the week. I also do a lot of sports – “Mens sana in corpore sano”. I like to go to the gym several times a week and enjoy outdoors activities when the weather allows. I love mountains, and in summer I enjoy hiking and in winter I never miss a chance to go skiing.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
Never be discouraged. From a young age, I was very fortunate to be able to distance myself from the negative impact of societal prejudice about women in science. But this is not always easy. The atmosphere is hopefully changing nowadays, but depending on the place one can still hear horrible false statements that can leave a severe impact by assigning exclusively ‘normal’ roles to women, and discouraging them from science. If you happen to be in such an unwelcoming environment, it is important to educate, challenge and ignore. Educate because we need to keep bringing a new normal to society. Challenge because these false statements can be very easily proven to be wrong. And ignore because even though we have to show the world that women are equal to men, some statements can be hurtful and these you simply have to ignore. My advice would be look around and see what interests you, and pursue it with hard work and passion.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science?
The excitement of research is in its unpredictability. Looking back on the long history of science, discoveries quite often come out of the blue. I definitely cannot say what will be the next great breakthrough in physics, but I am happy to be a part of a huge scientific community pursuing answers to many open questions every day.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
To improve the situation in the long run, we have to keep working on engaging more young girls to pursue studies in STEM. Right now we cannot expect to have an equal number of male and female professors simply because many less female students studied STEM subjects in university 20 years ago. However, at the same time one has to be constantly aware of biases and work on overcoming them. Unfortunately, no one can be completely unbiased. If we are raised in a biased environment, we are by default biased. On the other hand, by constantly trying to avoid our own biases, we can improve the situation. For example, to avoid a biased selection for a project, job position, etc., whenever possible the gender of an applicant should be hidden. It has been already shown that whenever gender is not specified, the female candidates’ success rate is much higher. This is just one example of possible prevention of biases. I think the world is moving in the right direction now, but we have to keep pushing it further.