10 Questions with Laura Pereira Sánchez
Laura from Spain is a PhD student at Stockholm University in Sweden.
She works in the ATLAS collaboration analysing data from the high energy proton-proton collisions of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. She is currently searching for some particles predicted by a theory called supersymmetry.
Laura will participate in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Laura and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I have always been interested in math and science but as a young girl I never thought I would become a scientist, I simply did not know what I would like to be when I grew up. During high school I became a Rotary Youth exchange student and lived in a small town in the NY state for a year. There I took a physics class and one of the activities our teacher made us do was to google chemist and physicist who had made breakthroughs in their fields. I remember realising that most of them were man, except the great Marie Curie, of course. I think it was in that moment that I told myself that I would some day like to be one of them, to show that women are also brave and smart enough to do that. After some years I realised that there were already many women that had done fantastic advances or discoveries on science. However, they have often been shadowed by men. Often in research, since we only use last names, it is easy to attribute work done by women to men. This is for example the case of the mathematician Emmy Noether. Noether’s theorem is vastly used in my field, however it is easy to assume that she was yet another of the long list of men that contributed to physics or mathematics.
- Who are your role models?
I don’t really have many role models. However, I have to admit that I admire my current supervisor, Sara Strandberg for being such a successful researcher while having a very healthy work-life balance. I hope one day I can reach something like that.
As for role models, I really enjoyed reading the book: 17 femmes prix Nobel de sciences, from Hèléne Merle-Béral. I read in the Spanish translation. This book, published in 2016, is a compilation of the biographies of the women who won a Nobel prize in science to that date. It was extremely inspiring to read about their lives and all they achieved in such hard and sexist conditions. For that, I admire all of them.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
Already in my last year of high school I discovered particle physics and felt in love with the field. I learnt about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and from that moment on it has been a dream of mine to work there, a dream that I thought I would never achieve.
I studied the bachelor of Physics at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. I thought I wanted to work as an engineer but physics seemed more fun and it looked like I could end up working in very similar positions as studying engineering, which I found less interesting. At that moment I already was extremely interested in high energy particle physics. I never thought I would be good enough to actually work on research but I was willing to try. I have learnt that if there’s something you are passionate about and are willing to work extra hard for it, it is way more likely that you’ll achieve this goal. During my bachelor I did an Erasmus to the Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany where I had my first research experience as a research assistance at the Max Planck Institute from Quantum Optics. After going back to high energy physics to do my bachelor and master thesis at IFAE, now I am currently a first year PhD student at Stockholm University.
I believe my biggest obstacle was in my last years of high school. Due to spending a year abroad in the US I was very behind in many subjects when I returned to Spain. Specially math, because I was not able to take this subject on exchange. When returning home I was failing so badly that my teacher, even after I explained that I had just missed a whole year on the subject, suggested that I should just drop the class and take something easier. This however implied that I would have to also quit physics, since math was an additional requirement to take it. So I decided to ignore my professor, keep working and prove him wrong. This is probably the best decision I have made in my whole life and has defined how I react to challenges in life I have had from that moment onward.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Any new project I take up feels like to coolest to me. I love what I am doing and learning new things, therefore every time I take up a new project I find it extremely cool. The coolest projects I have worked on are definitely my work in the ATLAS Collaboration.
During my master I measured the decay of a top quark, to a Higgs boson and a up-type quark. This decay is forbidden in the standard model at tree-level, which means that it is very unlikely to occur. We are indeed not sensitive to these events yet, however, several theories beyond standard model predict this decay to occur more often and therefore if we are able to measure it now we will indeed open the door to answer which of this beyond standard model theories actually match reality and which don’t. I found this analysis extremely interesting because in the final state I worked on, where the Higgs decays to a couple of bottom quarks, we were severely limited by systematic uncertainties and a smarter, new approach was needed to improve our results. This has actually been my first article in a scientific magazine. It was published at the end of May in the Journal of High Energy Physics and I am extremely happy that my name appears in the author list.
Currently, as part of my PhD I am working on a search for the supersymmetric partner of the top quark. This is a very different type of analysis, where we directly search for signatures of one of the theories that could replace the standard model, the most accepted and tested theory until the moment. Discovering any of the particles predicted by supersymmetry, which are not predicted by the standard model would definitely be a great break through. However, up to the moment we have only been able to exclude several models and different mass ranges for the predicted particles.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
One day I felt extremely happy was a bit over a year ago. When I was about to finish my master thesis, my supervisor offered me to keep working with the ATLAS group at IFAE during the summer, and this would involve being at CERN.
Working at CERN had been my dream since my last year of high school and being able to achieve that made me incredibly proud. One of the pictures of this interview was indeed taken on my very first day at CERN.
After this moment, I honestly felt immense pride in myself when I was chosen to participate in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, so many people apply for this program and being selected made me extremely happy. It felt like my hard work was being appreciated and that’s the best feeling ever.
- What is a “day in the life” of Laura like?
I have moved to Sweden for my PhD so my days vary a lot from winter to summer. When the weather allows it, I enjoy riding the bike to work. Most of my days consist on at least one video meeting with people from around the world, some at CERN, and others at their respective universities. I discuss with my colleagues and supervisors about any work we are working on at the moment, sit on my office and work. If I am lucky and not too stressed about an imminent deadline I enjoy reading papers and learn about things like machine learning, theoretical particle physics or simply other analysis that are being performed by other people within my collaboration. Depending on the day I try to leave work early and go to the gym. We have actually a very nice groups of physics PhDs that go together every Thursday to learn salsa.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I would love to discover or measure something new which is actually directly useful for society. High energy physics has already seen its golden age which culminated with the discovery of the Higgs particle in 2012. I am unfortunately too young to have been able to participate on that, but I would love to be able to participate in a discovery of similar importance. Every time we exclude a model, or masses in a theory like supersymmetry we are helping science and learning more about the universe we live in. But to be honest, it always feels better to discover that something actually exists, than to exclude something that doesn’t.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I like dancing and going to the gym. Since I moved to Sweden I also enjoy hiking when the weather allows it. For me it is extremely important to have fun with friends, exercise and enjoy my free time so I can go back to work next day full of energy.
- What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
Don’t be afraid of adventuring yourself in a field that is mostly associated to men or that people usually categorize as “too difficult”. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not good enough. We are not genius or eccentrics but very normal everyday people. If you find physics or science to be fun I think you should try to explore it. It is a very rewarding field where you will never stop learning.
If you already know that you want to become a researcher, I would advise you to offer your help in the lab to your professors or apply as for internships at any institutes you are interested in. Research experience is extremely important, it will help you decide if a PhD is a good option for you and it will make you a much better candidate to get hired.
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science?
I honestly don’t know but I am very excited to see it. I have learned that the biggest breakthroughs often come from interdisciplinary work. Applying something that is widely used to one field to a totally different field often gives extremely good results. This is in fact something I myself would like to experience. I find the fields of neuroscience and genetics extremely interesting and I would love to adventure myself in one of these fields and apply what data analysis in high energy physics has taught me to one of these fields.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
I think there are several approaches that should be used. To start, many girls don’t want to choose science because of the stereotype that scientist are crazy old men. We should let young girls explore and satisfy their curiosity showing them that they could also be scientists one days if they dream of that. They are good enough and smart enough.
Furthermore, I think it is very important to help women that have already chosen this path to be able to stay on research. For that to happen we have to not penalise women for being mothers. It often feels like men can have everything, a great career and a family. On the other hand, women have to choose. Often its not women that are penalised in their careers but mothers. So we should make sure that maternity leaves are taken into account when evaluating a candidate for a position. I personally would dream further and hope for a future where both man and women can spend time with their children and therefore no gender is penalised in their career or personal relationship with their children by an unequal parental leave.
Photo Credits: (1) Laura Pereira Sánchez (underground in front of the ATLAS detector (May 2019) when Laura did the training to become an ATLAS underground guide. This picture shows the open ATLAS detector. They are now doing some maintenance and upgrade work before they start colliding protons again in 2021.), (2) Laura Pereira Sánchez (Laura at CERN (July 2018), after her master thesis doing a summer internship with the ATLAS group at IFAE.), (3) Laura Pereira Sánchez (Laura at Stockholm University short after starting her PhD (end of September 2018). Ready to participate in an outreach event from the faculty of physics to teach people about our work and encourage kids and teenagers to study physics.)