Monica Pepe-Altarelli, World Leading Scientist: the Glass Ceiling is Cracking

The NextWomen Career Theme: Science

For this month’s theme, we will be interviewing a number of women from around the globe who have reached the top of the world’s most prestigious and/or male dominated professions. This is the story of Monica Pepe-Altarelli, a top scientist at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Switzerland.

After completing her physics university studies in Italy, Monica worked at CERN, first as a Research Associate for the Rutherford Laboratory in the UK, then as a research physicist for the Frascati National Laboratory of INFN and finally as a CERN staff. 

CERN is an international organization whose purpose is to operate the world's largest particle physics laboratory. It is also the birthplace of the World Wide Web. CERN's main function is to provide the particle accelerators and other infrastructure needed for high-energy physics research - as a result, numerous experiments have been constructed at CERN following international collaborations.

Monica participated in the NA32 experiment on hadronic production of charmed particles at the CERN SPS, in the ALEPH experiment at LEP and in the LHCb experiment at the LHC, which is being used to investigate the decays of B-particles (particles containing b-quarks).

She is currently responsible for the CERN team in the LHCb collaboration.

We spoke to Monica about her current role as a leading scientist at CERN; her experience of the 'glass ceiling'; and the role models who have made a lasting impact on her career.

TNW: What are the main responsibilities of your current role at CERN?

MP-A: I’m a member of the LHCb experiment where I’m the CERN team leader. The CERN LHCb team consists of 80 to 90 people, including staff, postdocs, and students. The CERN team is involved in all aspects of the experiment: from physics analysis, to online and offline computing, to detector R&D and construction. My activity involves a very diverse set of skills as I have a broad range of responsibilities covering not only human and financial resources but also technical and scientific aspects. I’m also directly involved in some physics analysis work and in the operation of the LHCb experiment.

TNW: What do you enjoy most about what you do?

MP-A: Of course I enjoy the physics research, the exceptional quality of many of the people that I encounter in my daily life at the lab, the non-repetitive character of my work and the atmosphere at CERN that is truly unique.

TNW: What is the biggest challenge you face in your role and how do you tackle it?

MP-A:

The biggest challenge is to be able to harmonize the managerial and scientific components of my job.

TNW: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone starting a career as a scientist?

MP-A: Work hard, look at the big picture and be ambitious.

TNW: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

MP-A:

A memorable moment has been to be present in the LHCb control room when the LHC started to collide protons after more than twenty years of preparation.

Another highlight was the first measurement of the number of neutrino generations that I performed when I was a young postdoc collaborating with the Nobel Prize winner Jack Steinberger in the ALEPH experiment at LEP.

TNW: Have you always aspired to a career in science? If you hadn’t chosen science, which other career paths might you have taken?

MP-A: No, I have not always aspired to a career in science. I’ve also been very attracted by the arts: I love drawing and could have become an architect; l ’ve also attended for two years a drama class and I’ve considered pursuing an acting career, but in the end physics was a choice that I do not regret.

TNW: Is your current role the result of a carefully planned career strategy, or have you made the most of opportunities as they have presented themselves?

MP-A: No, my current role is not the result of a carefully planned career strategy.

I think that indeed I’ve taken advantage of most of the opportunities as they have presented themselves.

TNW: Who do you most admire, both within your own field and as a role model in life?

MP-A: In the course of my career I have had the chance to meet and also to work with a few scientists whose intellect and ability to ask the right questions and identify the core of complex problems have impressed me enormously. A few names that come to my mind are those of Jack Steinberger, Jacques Lefrancois and Carlo Rubbia.

TNW: Science is a notoriously male dominated field. How (and how much) does this affect your working life, both on a daily and a long-term basis?

MP-A: It is true that science is a male dominated field, but in my professional life I’ve never felt any sort of discrimination, on the contrary I’ve encountered many supportive and encouraging colleagues. I got used to the fact of participating in meetings where often I may be one of very few women. By now I hardly pay any attention to that! 

However, above a certain level of responsibility, the glass ceiling is there and pretty thick, even if some cracks are starting to appear.

My good friend and colleague Fabiola Gianotti was elected spokesperson of the ATLAS collaboration, a community of over 3000 scientists (mostly males!) from all over the world, but she remains an exception.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you would like to share with our community?

MP-A: For a woman reconciling a successful career and family is a challenge. I’ve been very lucky as my husband (a theoretical physicist) and I were able to raise two great kids without sacrificing our careers.

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