Martha, Colombia

10 Questions with Martha Liliana Cortés Sua


Martha Liliana Cortés Sua, 31, from Colombia is a Ph.D. student at the TU Darmstadt in the Germany.

Her research is focused on the study of neutron rich-isotopes near closed shells by means of in-beam gamma-ray spectroscopy. These studies are important to understand the evolution of shell structure in nuclei far from stability.

Martha is a participant of the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting which is dedicated to the field of physics in 2016.

Enjoy the interview with Martha and get inspired:

  1. What inspired you to pursue a career in physics / STEM?

When I was at school I liked math and physics very much and I had a lot of fun learning about the explanation of natural phenomena. Nevertheless, I also liked other subjects, such as History. After school, when I was deciding what to study, I looked at the academic programs of different careers and I found the physics program particularly challenging. Taking that challenge, in a subject that was already fun for me, was extremely motivating.

  1. Who are your role models?

There are many people I admire for their academic achievements. One particular example is Maria Goeppert Mayer who, among other works, proposed the nuclear shell model. I admire people who, like her and many other scientists, honestly pursue a deep understanding of nature. In a more personal level, I admire my aunt Lilia. At the time she was young, it was not so easy to break the traditions on what a women should be, but she decided to live abroad, travel and see the world.

  1. How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I studied physics at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota. During my fourth year of studies, I had the chance to make a short project about characterization of germanium detectors at the Nuclear Physics Group and I liked it very much, so I decided to do my Bachelor thesis in that group under the supervision of Prof. Fernando Cristancho. Working with Prof. Cristancho was really a great experience, so I stayed in the same group for my Masters. During that time I worked in the a project related to the use of nuclear techniques to search for antipersonnel landmines. This was a really challenging and motivating project. When I finished my Masters I wanted to continue doing nuclear physics, but wanted to change the topic from applications to nuclear structure. As there are no accelerator facilities in Colombia I wanted to go abroad. Prof. Cristancho introduced me to Dr. Juergen Gerl, who works at GSI, a Radioactive Ion Beam facility in Darmstadt, Germany. Thanks to this contact, I got a PhD position at the Technical University of Darmstadt under the supervision of Prof. Norbert Pietralla and, since then, I am working on nuclear structure of neutron-rich isotopes.


  1. What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

One of the coolest projects I have worked on (and am still working on) in the test of Silicon Photomultipliers as read-out of plastic scintillators. We use plastic detectors to measure the velocity of radioactive ions traveling at relativistic velocities along a magnetic separator. A precise determination of the velocity of the particles is very important to identify them. Photmultiplier tubes are usually used to read out this type of detectors, nevertheless, recent developments in Silicon Photomultipliers offer a very interesting possibility due to their high sensitivity and small size. In this project I had passed through all the stages of detector development, from the design to the final assembly and test. It has been really fun and i have learned a lot.

  1. What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

More then a single big day, I feel proud of the small achievements. Usually the moments when I feel more proud are the moments when I manage to move one step forward in some analysis after struggling for long time to make sense of the data. Well, few days ago I submitted my PhD thesis and that was also a great moment.


  1. What is a “day in the life” of Martha like?

I think there is no such thing as a “standard” day for me. Last week I was finishing my PhD thesis, so my day was only going to the office and writing. This week I have experiment to test detectors, so I spend all the day in the lab, mounting pieces and testing electronics. Some other days I spend reading papers or doing data analysis and sometimes there are conferences to attend. Even the time I wake up changes due to night shifts! I think part of what I like of doing research is that every day can be different. Work can sometimes be difficult, but it never gets boring.

  1. What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I would like to be able to continue doing research in radioactive ion beams. I hope to get a deeper understanding of the underlying force governing the nucleus and be able to make a contribution to the big puzzle of nuclear structure.

  1. What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I like to travel to different places, read novels, take long walks and write short stories. I also like to talk to my family in Colombia and hang out with friends.


  1. What advice do you have for other women interested in physics / STEM?

I would tell them to not be afraid or intimidated. Do not let anyone, specially yourself, tell you that you are not “good enough” and that you better do something else. If you have fun doing physics, go for it and not let anyone put you down.

  1. In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics research?

I think this depends on the perspective. The physics program of LHC is already opening very interesting possibilities for the understanding of the early universe. Maybe room temperature super conductors or quantum computers would be the next breakthrough.

What should be done to increase the number of female professors of physics?

This is a difficult question, and I think there are many aspects that need to be considered. First, it is important to encourage girls from early age. It would probably help if the stereotypes of women that can be seen in TV, advertisement, etc., are changed. I think there are many girls who would potentially start a scientific career, but get discouraged by the models that society show them. In that sense it is also important to show more female scientists as role models. Other important aspect is to realize that gender bias is present at many different levels. To openly talk about it can help us recognizing these situations and start changing it. In that sense, I think is very important to involve men in the discussion, so they can also contribute to the reduction of the gender inequality.



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