The KIF Prize 2022 is supported with 5000 DKK from the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters put at its disposition by Professor Lene Hau.
The KIF Prize is an honorary award that is awarded annually to raise awareness about the importance of women in physics and identify female physicists as role models. In their motivation letter, the prize committee emphasized your impressive scientific career as well as your inspirational and dedicated work with students and young scientists.
Q: Congratulations on being awarded the KIF Prize 2022! What does it mean to you to receive this prize?
A: (Big smile) When I got the news, I was just so happy that I lost my breath. It is amazing and I feel really honoured. I consider myself an advocate of women in science and have always tried to inspire. Science needs a diverse community, having this prize will give me even more motivation to pursue my goal to raise awareness, appreciation, and acknowledgement that women have a very distinct place in science.
Q: Please tell us about your career path. Where have you studied and which positions have you held before coming to Denmark for your current position as Associate Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute?
A: I consider myself a gypsy of science. I was born in Brazil and obtained my BSc and my MSc in Physics with specialisation in Optics at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. During my Master thesis I built my own pulsed laser system, which I used during my research project, and which was then used to develop 2 master thesis and one PhD! That was a real hands-on task! Delivered on time and without budget!!! My PhD in Condensed Matter Physics, I received at the Université Montpellier II, in the South of France, where I also presented my habilitation (that is somehow equivalent to the Danish doctorate) in 2008.
At the end of my Ph.D., I went to work in the Los Alamos Neutron Scattering Center in the USA where I met my husband. Next station, the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source at Argonne also in the USA. After spending about 5 years as a postdoctoral and research fellow in the USA, in 2002 my husband and I moved to Germany to work as research scientists at the Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin. In 2005, I took a sabbatical and spent the year at the Institut Laue-Langevin in France. During my time in Germany, I set the basis for my career, formed students on neutron scattering and developed strong collaborations. Then, came the BIG change! In March 2011 I became Associated Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute. My position is connected in part to the long-awaited European Spallation Source (ESS) project, where my role is to support and strengthen the connection between the Danish scientific community and the ESS. My contribution to this fantastic project is the backscattering spectrometer MIRACLES. That was approved for construction in June 2015. MIRACLES is now in the construction phase having my very good friend Félix J. Villacorta and ESS Bilbao as the leading team. This means that I wear a double hat, I educate the future users of this great facility and at the same time, I am part of a great European project.
Q: What was your motivation to pursue a career in physics and how did you choose the field you are now specializing in?
A: I find science fascinating and had the luxury to have a fantastic Physics teacher at high school. I also had great female teachers in mathematics and biology. I chose physics because I was curious to explain how things work, electrical circuits always fascinate me… I also had 2 big dreams: travel the world and work in Los Alamos.
I got into neutron scattering by pure chance. The truth is that I measured something during my PhD using light scattering that my supervisor doubted … the only way to prove that my data was right was through a neutron experiment. I took the challenge, proved my point, and got hooked on neutrons (laughs…).
Q: What is your research about and why is it important?
A: I use neutrons and other complementary techniques to study a range of materials that are relevant to our daily lives including oral vaccines, dental cements, food, drug molecules and hair bleach. The common theme that runs through these examples is the presence of water confined in porous frameworks. I apply a range of spectroscopy techniques to study the dynamics of hydrogen bonding in these systems, and how the hydrogen bonds that are held together change under different conditions. As well as focusing on my own research, I have also introduced many students to the advantages of neutron scattering. These students have taken their knowledge of neutrons into academia, industry, and teaching.
This year, I received the 2022 ISIS Society Impact Award for my work on developing smarter materials by tuning physio-chemical properties using neutron spectroscopy.
Q: You have been awarded the KIF prize for being a role model to other women in physics and this is very well deserved. Who have been your own role models as a student and young researcher and what inspiration did you get from them?
A: My real role models are/were my mother and my father. My mother was an amazing woman, ahead of her time and determined. My father really believed in meritocracy, and so do I. As a student, my mathematics teacher was amazing, she always pushed me to do better. Also, my literature teacher, I used to get the first prize in all poetry and storytelling competitions at school, was a controversial and great character. He inspired me a lot. Then, my classical ballet teacher… oh! She really put in my head what is the true value of discipline.
Later, I had the chance to work with many inspiring people, the women that really believed in me and pushed me forward are two French women, Mariette Barthès and Marie-Claire Bellisent Funnel. Both are now around 70 years old; they belong to the French generation that was influenced by the feminist theory and had to really fight to get to high ranks of academia.
All these fantastic men and women taught me respect, the importance of equality, and to be patient. Yes, we need to be patient to get our ideas accepted, and sometimes to be accepted as we really are.
Q: What advice would you give to young people who dream of pursuing a career as a scientist?
A: The sky is your limit! Be courageous and focused. Believe on yourself and do not give up.
Q: In general, what do you think can be done to advance the careers of underrepresented groups in physics?
A: First, we must accept that there is a glass ceiling. This truth is not enjoyable, but if we face it at least we can start dealing with it. Unquestionably, we like to be around people who mirror ourselves. It is comfortable and there is (normally) little conflict. But this also means that the representation of women (and minorities) in science will be kept low. Only if the tough question: How can we expand the image in our mirrors, is put on the table, then things can really change.
If you ask me how I deal with it, I will be very plain: I know I am not fully accepted by many, but I always make sure that I do good work and I am respected for that. It is tiring, frustrating and sometimes infuriating. But, when I see how successful the female students that have worked with me are in their careers, I feel that my approach works. I really hope that the generation after mine will get much further.
To conclude, I cite Táhirih Qurrat al-‘Ayn: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women”.