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Female Researchers in the Spotlight for Physics & Astronomy Ladies' Day

On Thursday November 15th, Leiden University organizes its Physics & Astronomy Ladies' Day for female high school students. To mark this festive day, we put the spotlight on five female researchers, who talk about their experiences working in science.

Click here for more information about the Physics & Astronomy Ladies Day.

Melissa Rinaldin, PhD student Experimental Physics

‘I have always been fascinated by challenging puzzles. As a high school student, I loved translating Latin and Greek texts and solving mathematics equations. Then I decided to study Physics because I could challenge myself with mathematical problems applied to the natural world.

‘The deep understanding of phenomena that you get by studying physics is really fascinating. I like to think about both concrete and abstract phenomena, and picture them in my mind with equations.

‘During my master I moved from Italy to The Netherlands to do my thesis on tuning phase separation in biological membranes by using light. This is Soft Matter Physics, aka the physics of everything that is wet, squishy or floppy. I loved the curiosity, the passion for science and the international environment in the group. I also really liked my research subject, so for my PhD I joined two other groups in Leiden to continue to work on phase separation.

‘During my PhD, I had the opportunity to talk about my work at international conferences and meet many people in the Soft Matter community from the Netherlands and abroad. I have learned a lot from them, not only about science but also about different cultures.

‘Now I am working on the effect of geometry on phase separation in biological membranes. These separate into different phases, like oil droplets do on the surface of soup. During my PhD I have engineered tiny spheres, cubes and dumbbells to attach to the membranes and see how different shapes affect the different phases of the membranes. I developed a love for geometry and in the future I hope to continue studying more ways of how geometry controls the world around us.’

Jackie Hodge, Assistant Professor in star formation at Leiden Observatory

As a teenager, I was fascinated by the concept of our Universe. Questions like 'What is the Big Bang?' and 'Does the Universe have an edge?' motivated me to read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and I eventually majored in Physics at university in California. From there, I went on to receive my master's and PhD in Physics. I later met Stephen Hawking in person!

During my study, I loved understanding why things are the way they are from a deep level. I also used to joke that I have a terrible memory, but with physics you can derive many of the equations you need from first principles. I still love these aspects of physics and cosmology. For example, in the Galaxies & Cosmology bachelor's course I teach here in Leiden, I teach the students to solve the basic equations that govern the expansion of our Universe.

‘As a student I did a summer internship at Arecibo Observatory, which is the absolutely massive (305 meter!) radio telescope in the jungle in Puerto Rico that has been featured in movies like Contact and Goldeneye. Being in that environment was an incredible experience, and that's when I fell in love with astronomy.

Astronomy is a very international field, which is one of the things I love about it. I'm originally from California, but I spent 3 years in Germany, several months in Chile, and now I live here in Holland. Our telescopes are often situated in very interesting places like Hawaii and La Palma, and I've also given invited talks in over a dozen countries, including places like Vietnam.

My current research here at Leiden Observatory focuses on understanding how galaxies evolved over cosmic time. In particular, recent advances in telescope design allow us to see very distant galaxies that were previously invisible. My group works on understanding the implications of these brand new observations for the formation of galaxies and the supermassive black holes that reside in their cores.

Click here for a video in which Jackie explains how she uses telescopes for her research on understanding the formation of galaxies in the early years of the Universe.

Guadalupe Cañas Herrera, PhD student Theoretical Physics

‘Since I was a kid, I felt a real passion for natural sciences. As time passed, I realized that I was more interested in physics than in any other field. I enjoy challenges, and taking into account that physics was the subject that required most of my energy (I do not have an outstanding talent for mathematics), it quickly became my favorite subject. Moreover, the university of my region in Spain organized pre-university sessions where I discovered how physics was done at the university… and I fell in love!

‘The bachelor’s study in physics is a beautiful journey which enables you to answer all different kinds of questions regarding how the universe works. On the one hand, you get to know about all different branches, including my favorite: cosmology. On the other hand, you also learn many interfacing skills, such as programming, presenting and writing in a foreign language.

‘Since I was young, it has been pretty clear to me that I wanted to become a university professor and continue inspiring the next generations. This requires a set of diverse skills such as love for teaching and patience for research, and you get all of these skills during a PhD, which is the first step towards an academic career. I loved what I did during my Master’s project, so I knew research is the right place for me.

‘Scientists are expected to travel a lot, to present at conferences and attend seminars. This international environment has helped me to get out of my comfort zone: living abroad many times far away from my relatives. And I made friends all over the globe and learned a couple of extra foreign languages.

‘I started the Bachelor’s in physics with the idea that one day I will work fulltime in a lab. But along the way I found out that my passion is in a more theoretical environment. Now I am part of the Theoretical Cosmology group. I work at understanding how the universe works: how it began and how the structure that we see today was first seeded. In particular, I am interested in using observational data to distinguish among all the theoretical models that we have for the Universe.’

Elena Sellentin, Assistant Professor in data analysis at Leiden Observatory

‘My scientific journey started at an Open Day at the Physics Department of Heidelberg University at the age of 19. I remember the huge blackboards, the chalk and the theoretical and experimental physicists giving lectures. It was my dreamland: so many critical people! I admired how physicists express very complex thoughts in just a few equations.’

‘Studying physics definitely changed me. Not only because of the subjects I studied, but also because all my best friends were male. There are many things in life you cannot learn from fathers or husbands, but only from male best friends. We spent a lot of time in the library, solving exercises and example exams. We used to pretend that the only difference between us is that I laugh about the boys in a soprano voice, while they laugh about me in baritone voices. That was never the full truth, of course. For example, when conducting radioactivity experiments, the boys would keep me away from the radioactive material, saying it was not good for me.’

‘I continued my academic career in astronomy because it offers me intellectual independence. There is no big company on my heels and I am not being lobbied. Instead, I have to raise research funds from government agencies based on evidence and a good research proposal.’

‘Astronomy is an incredibly international field of science. I am German by birth, but I identify myself with Europe as a whole. I love working on an international level. I was in the UK during Brexit, and I still wear my anti-Brexit t-shirts regularly. I also love that my religious Iranian friends have very similar inner attitudes as me, even though I consider myself  an atheist or humanist. In certain subjects, my friends from the Middle East are much better educated than I am. I admire their knowledge in medicine, geometry, observational astronomy or the history of science.’

‘My current research as an assistant professor at Leiden Observatory focuses on randomness in nature and data analysis. I lecture and research with students and colleagues. We design the data analysis for the Euclid satellite of the European Space Agency. I notice that I begin to make close scientific friendships with mathematicians, so I my career may still take a few unexpected turns.’

Wiebke Albrecht, Postdoc Experimental Physics

‘In school, I was most interested in Physics and Mathematics. In the end, I chose to study Physics. I had a good teacher, which also made a difference. Plus it was a challenge. I had the feeling that people thought Physics is not for women. It motivated me to be good at it.

‘The best part for me in studying Physics was solving problems and working together in a team. During werkcolleges you work together, and outside of the classroom we often reflected on the lectures. It is a difficult education to do on your own, so it also helps if you collaborate. Also now, during my postdoc, I think working together is still one of the best aspects.

‘After my studies, I stayed within Physics because I wanted to continue working in research. The best part is that you solve problems that are actually relevant. During your education you work on problems that have already been solved in real life.

‘For me it is exciting to learn about different cultures, so I enjoy the international environment. I am German, so in Leiden I am abroad myself. That is difficult in terms of family, but it is nice to get in touch with different things. Also for scientific results I think it is beneficial to be in an international research group, because each member brings in different ideas from their own experience.

‘I work as a postdoc on metal nanoparticles—gold and silver. Nanoparticles have different properties than as bulk material, such as gold or silver in jewelry. I study their optical properties and image them in 3D through electron microscopy. If you irradiate a gold nanoparticle with light at the right wavelength, its electrons start moving collectively. They behave as a quasi-particle, called a plasmon, and heat up. You could use it for example to heat up cancer cells very locally, so that its protein break down, while you leave the healthy cells alone.’

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