10 Questions with Zara Bagdasarian
Zara Bagdasarian, 26, from Georgia is a Postdoc at the Forschungszentrum Jülich.
She is studying mysterious neutrinos with Borexino and SOX collaborations. Besides researching solar and geo-neutrinos, they are preparing to test the hypothesis of the sterile neutrinos in the eV range. Sterile neutrinos do not interact even via the weak interaction, but they want to “see” them through the oscillations at the short distances.
Zara is a participant of the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Zara and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in physics / STEM?
For as long as I can remember myself I’ve always loved solving math and logic problems (having Math teachers for both of my parents might have had its influence). Later in life the fascination with the universe puzzles led me to studies and research in Physics. The life of a physicist is not always easy, but it is working with the amazing people towards one big goal, that makes it so exciting and a lot of fun.
- Who are your role models?
While I’ve never been a fan girl of anybody in particular, I do enjoy a good life story. I think it’s great to get inspiration from various people from as many various fields and situations as possible, maybe just some details of their lives, maybe only subconsciously. I think variety of inspirations is actually the key, because you learn that there is no single recipe for success, you have to carve your own.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
As I already mentioned, my both parents are math teachers. So, it wasn’t uncommon for me to get the logical problems and riddles instead of fairy tales before the bedtime. However, the best advise my parents gave to me was not to limit myself to only math, or whatever I am good at, but really put effort to learn all other subjects at school, to choose my next step not because I cannot go anywhere else, but because I choose to go where I want to go.
I chose Physics as my undergraduate studies, as the most fundamental and interesting use of math. Georgia has a good tradition of Physics education, so it was also a very positive factor in choosing the faculty. I’ve started my first efforts in the research at the beginning of the Bachelor studies in the theoretical Solid State Physics with Dr. Mikheil Zviadadze. He was a great teacher, but after I participated in the DESY summer school at the end of my 3rd year, particle physics and big experiments won my heart.
This was also the moment I started considering Germany as a great place for research. The following summer I went to Jülich Research Center and CERN. Prof. Dr. Hans Ströher became my supervisor and mentor at Jülich Research Center and invited me to Jülich several times during my Master’s studies, including the Master Thesis preparation. I should also mention Dr. Andro Kacharava and Dr. Nodar Lomidze as great advisors.
After my Master’s thesis for the PAX experiment, I moved to the ANKE collaboration for my PhD project. I did my PhD within the Cotutelle agreement between University of Cologne (Germany) and Tbilisi State University (Georgia). Finally, after I got my PhD degree, I got a 2 year Postdoc position at Jülich Research Center, switching to the field of neutrino physics.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I tend to get very excited about the projects I’m working on. For my DESY summer program, I was very impressed that so much can be learnt and done in just 2 month. For my PhD project, I really enjoyed that I could go through the whole process of the experiment preparation, experiment itself and finally analysing and interpreting obtained data. And of course, I am very excited about my current tasks, I am learning a lot, and it’s overwhelming to think about the fact that we are studying something that interacts so weakly (neutrinos can pass through a light year thick lead) or not even weakly (in case of the sterile neutrinos).
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I was very happy and proud to get selected for the Lindau meeting, I applied through the open application, and wasn’t sure about the odds of getting selected.
In the projects I described before, the moments of getting the first results are extremely joyful. Besides discussing the final results at the conference talks and posters and getting positive feedback tend to boost my motivation about our work.
- What is a “day in the life” of Zara like?
My “day” can vary quite a lot, sometimes it’s actually a night, when I have to take part in the night shifts and sometimes it’s working on the plane. But if you consider a typical day in the research center, it includes a lot of sitting in front of the screen and meetings, so I do enjoy stretching my legs on the way to the canteen, and having lunch with friends.
I wish I could say that I’m doing sports every evening, but unfortunately it’s not the case at the moment. I either meet up with friends or Skype while preparing the dinner. My parents live in Georgia (country), my sister lives in Georgia (state), so sometimes we are organizing these world-wide conferences when we chat altogether while doing chores at home.
Besides, my husband spends half of the time in Italy, so Skype/Facetime are a big part of my evenings.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
Neutrino physics seems like a booming interesting field. There is so much exciting research to do. Combining scientific work, teaching and collaborating internationally sounds like a perfect match for me.
In scientific career, getting professorship and/or a permanent position in the research center is a rather straightforward path. However, everybody in academia knows that even when you are working on the exciting project, the odds for getting a stable employment may not look so good.
So, for the moment I am trying to do my best as the Postdoctoral researcher and ask me again in 5 years. The world is full of the opportunities, and maybe there are still some I haven’t even thought about yet.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
As I said I do not have a very stable relationship with sports, but give me music and you won’t be able to stop me from dancing (yes, it might get awkward to hang out with me in the shops with the catchy music…). I enjoy learning languages (at the moment I speak 5), and putting myself in the awkward situations where I have to use them (the more in one day, the merrier). I enjoy pretending that I am improving my language skills by watching TV series in various combinations of the audio and subtitles languages.
My husband is Italian, so he’s a connoisseur of food and fashion by the right of birth. We are a rare case, where husband is the one dragging wife to go shopping and go out for dinner. But even he cannot always handle the times I am inexplicably attracted by the shoe shops. When indoors we are chilling on the couch, watching TV series, reading books and planning our next trip.
We enjoy traveling whenever we have a chance, whether it’s a 3 weeks vacation or just a weekend get-away. We also enjoy preparing for the trips to maximize the sightseeing opportunities: a trip is not a success if you don’t come back more exhausted than when you left, right?
- What advice do you have for other women interested in physics / STEM?
Just go for it, it’s a good choice you won’t regret. Talk to knowledgeable people, get information from the bottomless internet, study, work on yourself. Don’t give up and don’t forget to have fun.
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics research?
Standard Model is proven to be a beautiful theory with many predictions being confirmed experimentally over the decades. But at the same time there is also an immense amount of evidence that there is physics beyond the Standard Model. While we are getting very close to it, it still eludes us what exactly awaits us beyond the Standard Model. Of course, I am optimistic that the neutrinos hold the key to the next breakthrough, and we unravel a lot beyond the currently known.
What should be done to increase the number of female professors of physics?
This should be tackled at various levels at the same time. Young girls should be encouraged to study subjects that are still labeled “just for boys”. More girls should do math, programming and science and told that they are good at it. More girls choose STEM today, more women will become professors and get other leading positions tomorrow.
For those who have already chosen Physics in their studies, and started their academic careers, a more appealing career structures should be proposed. This will benefit not only women but also men. Family-friendliness is often discussed only as “Women in Physics” issue, but it is also important that men have opportunity to take parental leaves spend quality time with family and share the load of everyday chores.
At any stage it is important to fight conscious and unconscious biases, that everybody including women towards themselves and other women can have. First step is to admit that there is a problem and think about it. I think it’s a good test to exchange pronoun if you want to say something to a woman/man, or trying to characterize a woman/man, if it sounds absurd applying for the opposite gender, you probably should think about it more before saying it out loud.