Rosana Martinez Turtos is Assistant Professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University

Congratulations on being awarded an Inge Lehmann grant from Independent Research Fund Denmark!

Please tell us about your research and why is it important.

The research project proposed in the Inge Lehmann grant aims at finding the point of interaction of a gamma photon when travelling through crystalline media. Gamma photons are massless particles travelling at the speed of light with kinetic energies that are million times higher than a photon we can see with our eyes for example, or thousands of times higher than the photons used to make radiographies. These two features – no mass and huge kinetic energies, make gamma photons very hard to ‘localize’ in space.  The project aims at actually measuring their point of interaction without constraining the volume of dense media needed to stop them.

This has implications for the way positron emission tomography is done, which is the most sensitive technique to image and detect cancer in living humans. PET scanners are machines that can dynamically look at what happens inside the human body using tiny tiny amounts of antimatter to mark cancerous tumors, which are eventually glowing with 511 keV gamma photons  

What are your plans and what are the possibilities that this grant opens for you?

The plan with the grant is first, to develop a new technique and then test how far in spatial resolution it can go. Such resolution is linked to the smallest cancerous tumor detectable nowadays in a clinical PET scanner.

Possibilities career-wise are generous, the grant would allow me to gain experience in guiding the work of Ph.D. students in Denmark. I actually like very much the Danish word vejleder instead of supervisor. I think of Ph.D. studies as the education teaching us to make new ‘knowledge roads’, hopefully new ‘knowledge bridges’. I finished my own 5 years ago and now I am ready for the vejleder challenge.

On top, I would be able to do research with a group of colleagues that I appreciate working with and re-connect with my previous network, focusing on the physics I like to do.

Where have you studied and which positions have you held before your current one?

I did my master’s degree in Nuclear Physics in Havana, Cuba where I am from. In 2017, I finished my Ph.D. studies at the University of Milano-Bicocca, in Italy, and from 2017-2019 I held a fellow position at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research based at the French-Swiss border.

After that, I moved to Denmark in 2019, worked as a postdoc for about 2 years here at the University, and started as an Assistant Professor last year as a PI of my own research project HAPP.

How did you choose the field of physics you are now specialized in?

If I think about it, it must have been a consequence of how life unfolded for me. When I was growing up in Cuba in the nineties, we had a family friend from the USA who was helping us out a lot through the economic crisis – a crisis which in some way was due to the US embargo. He was a black man who earned his right to education at a late stage of his life after piloting warplanes and I regarded his life as worth learning from. Unfortunately, he died of prostate cancer at the age of 80 and it came as a big surprise because, despite his age, he looked full of energy and life.

I remember when I had to choose a topic for my master’s, I visited the radiotherapy department at the Oncologic hospital in Havana, but I could not bear the look of the patients so I have chosen to focus on the physics that can bring about new medical imaging methods for example.

What motivated you to study physics?

I like to understand how most things work, not to intervene with it, just to observe and try to understand it, so probably that. Also, I am pretty bad at sports or anything that requires me to remember what my brain classifies as a random thing. I could have studied mathematics, but I chose physics when I was 18 after going back and forth between mathematics and physics for months, and I chose physics because I thought it would give me more freedom in the future. I think now, it gave me not only more freedom but the toolbox that comes with physics, as Feynman will call it, is a very powerful one.

Did you have a role model or mentor? If so, what inspiration did you get from them?

I think my mom was the best role model, I can think of – if I need to call it that way. I remember coming back from the mathematics competitions when I was probably 11-12 years and asking her some of the problems I could not fully solve, and she could make dinner and answer my questions at the same time. I remember I was very impressed by seeing her peeling potatoes, following my problem, and giving me the solution, all in one coherent act.

Together with that, I have also met and worked with many women in academia at every stage of my career.

What advice would you give to young people (in particular women and minorities) who would like to pursue a career in science?

A career in science, if we see it as a career linked to academia, is not a path that has a unique solution, and that makes it less complicated J but I would say it is definitely not straightforward. The job requires so many different types of expertise starting from being an excellent researcher, to actually knowing how to teach bright minds, to becoming a good group leader and being lucky enough to raise your own funding, etc. So far, what works best for me is not to focus on the result or on a predefined goal and to keep an eye on the process and dynamics of the group I work with. I think there is a very fine line between having dreams and being over-ambitious, so when in doubt, I always choose to prioritize my family or personal time.  

If I would need to give concrete advice to women and minorities, I would say learning to push self-doubt away is usually great practice.  I think it is useful to decouple how we feel and how the environment makes us feel so we can appreciate the environments where we thrive.

In the end, it seems to me that pursuing a career in science is pretty much like being in love, do you really have the choice to let it go? Cause if you don’t have a choice, then there is not much more to it, you only need to learn to navigate it and grow to become the captain of your boat.