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Women in STEM: Meet the Brazilian Physics Grad Colliding Particles at CERN

Women in STEM: Meet the Brazilian Physics Grad Colliding Particles at CERN main image

Ask somebody on the street what they think about CERN and more often than not you’ll be met with a blank face. At best, someone might remember hearing CERN mentioned in the same breath as the Large Hadron Collider but they’ll still probably struggle to tell you what CERN (otherwise known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research – the acronym is French) actually does. For physicists, however, it’s one of the most exciting places in the world.

Brenda Penante could barely imagine she’d one day be working at CERN when growing up in Recife, Brazil. However, after studying physics in Canada, working as a teaching assistant in South Africa, studying for her PhD at Queen Mary University of London and completing a postdoctorate in Berlin, Brenda finds herself working at CERN in a job she loves. We got in touch to learn more about her role, and to get her advice for other young women interested in studying the sciences.

What sparked your initial interest in science?

My father played an important role for sure. He loves astronomy, and could go on for hours into the night talking about constellations and the movements of the moon and planets. I remember finding it all fascinating, especially his passion for it, but it never occurred to me to study astrophysics. At school my favorite subject was math, but what made me decide to study physics at university was some old science books I found on my father’s bookshelves. I was 15 years old and started reading about quantum mechanics, relativity and string theory and got really into it. From then, my goal was to become a theoretical physicist, although I had little idea what that entailed.

What was your university experience like?

I enjoyed my time at university very much, I had very high standards for myself and put a lot of effort in to not fall short of them. In my year’s intake, there were just five women studying physics and there were only two of us left by the time we graduated. Back then, it didn’t occur to me that this female to male ratio was abnormal as I was used to it from school. Only years later did it hit me that there must be something wrong with how few women develop an interest in science, let alone pursue it.

One thing I do remember is feeling very insecure and finding the guys on my course to be more confident and assertive, even when their results weren’t as good as mine. This feeling has been with me ever since, and it’s an ongoing challenge for me to feel I’m worthy of my achievements.

Were there any differences when it came to be studying for a PhD?

It’s hard to keep your head firmly on your shoulders when doing a PhD. When you find yourself stuck on a problem, you can feel trapped, but other times the calculations work out and everything magically becomes wonderful. It was a constant struggle to keep my mind healthy, and I spent a lot of time and energy learning meditation in my spare time.

Looking back, my experience was definitely positive. I made good friends, had support from my supervisors and progressed professionally. During the first two years, I was the only woman in the string theory department, but I wasn’t surprised by this. I was able to make friends with other women working in the astrophysics and condensed matter departments and occasionally took part in events organized by the WISE (Women in Science and Technology) committee. It was good to exchange experiences with them and provide mutual reassurance; there were things I didn’t feel comfortable discussing with my male colleagues, such as my lack of self-confidence.

Now you’re working at CERN. What does a typical day look like for you?

I’ll get to work around 9am. The first thing I do is to check the arXiv webpage for today’s new papers in my research area and then get on with my tasks. I normally work on two or three projects in parallel, and every day I devote time to getting my head around a bite-size chunk of them. I do that typically by reading articles, discussing with my collaborators (either in person or via Skype), thinking and coding, with regular pauses for meals and coffee. I also attend local seminars and occasionally prepare to give one myself. My work day finishes at around 8pm usually, depending on deadlines.

What are your thoughts on the gender pay gap, particularly in the sciences?

Up to a postdoctoral level, I’ve noticed positions are advertised with a fixed salary which is fair. However, as one becomes a lecturer or professor, salary becomes negotiable and that’s where there is an imbalance, especially as women seem to be less likely to ask for a high salary and will also often have the issue of deciding to start a family. In my opinion, salaries should be regulated in a transparent way to avoid any disparities.

Until that happens, women should research the expected salary for their job and demand to be paid fairly. They could also discuss the issue with their colleagues to find out if they’re each being paid fairly and work together to demand better pay if necessary.

Why do you think there aren’t more women working or studying in STEM-related fields?

The main reasons, in my opinion, are a lack of role models and the fact it’s not a traditional path to follow. Boys are encouraged to be explorers but girls are expected to be pretty and not get dirty. This diverts attention of girls away from any initial scientific curiosity. Then, at school, students learn about science in a way which overlooks female contributions and role models, and so young people develop a stereotype of what a scientist looks like. I’ve lost count of how many times I was told I didn’t look like a physicist, which is a shame.

Some young women will overcome these obstacles despite the fact working in science means being more alone or having to spend time surrounded by guys all the time. Others will simply find something else where they feel they “fit in” better, and their talent is wasted.

What advice would you give to young women looking to study or work in STEM?

Try it out. Conditions are slowly changing, awareness of the gender imbalance is growing and it’s up to us to drive through change. If you’re really interested in something and there’s an opportunity to spend the best part of your days dedicating yourself to it in a job with fantastic prospects, then do yourself a favor and go for it!

Lead image: the Large Hadron Collider (Credit: Maximilien Brice)

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Written by Craig OCallaghan
As editor of TopUniversities.com, Craig oversees the site's editorial content and network of student contributors. He also plays a key editorial role in the publication of several guides and reports, including the QS Top Grad School Guide.

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