Anna Benecke : Physics, is it for girls too ?

Physics : is it for girls too ?

UCLouvain organises du for September 6 to September 9, a summer camp for high school girls intereted in science.  This camp aims at breaking gender bias and raise awareness of the young women's legitimacy in STEM university courses. The program consists of research work in small groups, team building, Q&A sessions with experienced female researchers. It's a new week met Anna, the young researcher who initiated the ces "Physics project days" in UCLouvain. 

Could you tell us about your work at UCLouvain, what position you hold, in which institute and with which professors do you work on a daily basis ?

I have a postdoctoral fellowship of the UCLouvain and work in the CP3 IRMP department where I am mainly working with Andrea Giammanco, who is a Research Director of FNRS. I have just received the FNRS CR fellowship which will start in October and allows me to stay another 3 years at UCLouvain to do my research. I am a particle physicist, working on the CMS experiment, one out of four experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire) in Geneva, Switzerland.

What is your research project, very briefly? Could you explain it in two or three lines for the uninitiated?

The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator and it collides two highly energetic particle beams. The outcome of these collisions is detected with a huge detector (the CMS experiment), which works similar to an everyday camera, but much faster and with many more channels. There is still a lot we don’t know about matter and the very existence of the universe and we are looking for some answers by studying the dynamics of elementary particles that are created in high energy collisions. These give us insight in the creation of the universe, the building blocks of matter and the natural forces. One project I lead is the development of pileup mitigation techniques in CMS which is explained nicely in this physics briefing.

What gave you the idea of organising this type of seminar specifically for girls?

When I started my studies in physics in Kiel, Germany, among the 40-50 students, there were only 4 women. And during my whole Bachelor degree I was never taught by a female professor. There is a long but disproved rumor that physics or scientific-technical subjects in general have a gender-specific requirement profile. In addition, many female high school students have the opinion that despite having the best possible grades in physics they are not suited for a university physics degree. With the Physics Project Days we aim to change this mindset, show the girls that they are good enough to study physics and that it is a lot of fun! The decision of what subject to study at the university is often influenced by the parents, friends and teachers. Therefore, another important part of this project is the research presentation at the end of the workshop, where the girls present their results to the general public, especially their parents. I have seen many parents realising that their daughters can explain complicated physics, which the parents might not even understand, but they realise that their daughter is suitable to study physics.

Is it linked to your background?

I always knew that I wanted to study physics and my parents were very supportive. However, I also experience the imposter syndrome, which means that people feel like a fraud and fear that tomorrow people will find out that you don’t deserve the position/reputation you have. This is often felt especially by highly successful women. Therefore, it is very important to encourage and support women on all career levels, whether they have not yet started studying or at high career levels, because together we can make a difference.

What message could we get across to the university community on this subject? If you had to give advice to members of staff who also have children, girls and boys who one day will choose to study, what would it be?

Despite all the achievements that we made in terms of overcoming stereotypes, there are still things to do. Most of us don’t discriminate on purpose. However, society and stereotypes change slowly and we should fight them to create a better future for our kids. There are great exercises about understanding the unconscious bias. If we are aware of our own biases it is already one step in the right direction. We should try to go through the world with open eyes. If I could give an advice I would say that they should support their kids with whatever they want to study and encourage them to try subjects where they don’t fit the stereotype! It is more likely they will succeed if they are allowed to do what they like. It’s not a problem that she wants to be a princess, it’s a problem that she thinks she can’t be a knight!

Anna also presents her research in international conferences and workshops, which is an important part of her work. Thses photos show her at the spring meeting of the German physics society (DPG). She also exposed her research at the BOOST conference in Berkeley in the U.S. last summer.

On the photos in the article, Anna is in front of the CMS detector during a technical shutdown.

Physics project days : a 4 days dive into the research labs of physics at UCLouvain.
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Published on September 07, 2023