This month EPWS gives the floor to Dr. Yasmine Amhis, researcher at IJCLab, Orsay, France. She is a particle physicist at IJCLab (Orsay, France). She received her PhD in 2009 from the University Paris XI in Orsay France. She was then awarded a fellowship at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland), where she spent three years before obtaining a permanent position at CNRS in 2012. In 2016 she was awarded a prize from the French Academy of Science. In 2020, she defended her Habilitation à diriger des recherches at Université Paris-Saclay. In 2022, she was elected Physics Coordinator of the LHCb experiment at CERN. Today, she is a scientific associate and is based at CERN in Switzerland.
EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?
I am inherently a curious person, and I am always questioning everything. Fundamental science strikes me as being an ideal home for the curious. My trajectory towards fundamental physics was not straightforward. I started with Medicine as my parents are both medical doctors, this path was not for me though. At the library of the university, I discovered the physics textbooks and fell in love with the topic instantly.
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
I am a particle physicist and a member of the LHCb collaboration at CERN.
LHCb is one of the four experiments located on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. One of the primary roles of this experiment is to study the difference between matter and anti-matter as well as search for signatures of particles beyond the Standard Model. Particle physics is a discipline that requires a very diverse set of skills, there is room for people with many interests. Some may prefer detectors building, data processing, data analysis, machine learning, phenomenology and/or collaboration with theorists etc. What we bring to society is subtle, there is really an urge to continue to understand fundamental concepts of nature. Some of the questions we try to address on everyday basis may seem disconnected from daily matters and to some extent they are. But the heart of fundamental physics is to push further human knowledge, even if maybe we face too many meetings and compilation errors.
Furthermore, there is a high level of training of young PhD students. Particle Physics by its complexity is one of the best schools to learn critical thinking.
EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of? ? Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?
This is a difficult question to answer. Particle Physics is a field where projects, whether
building a new detector or completing an analysis, takes a very long time. To give a concrete example, projects at the Large Hadron Collider time span is order of decades and the publication of analysis is three to four years sometimes more. The moments of that feel like success are very private they may resemble a looking at the mass distribution of a b-hadron particle decaying in the detector appearing for the first time on my screen.
I feel the greatest pride when I hear my PhD students answer difficult questions reflecting a deep understanding of their research, I feel absolute joy too when they come up with their own ideas.
EPWS: In which country/countries have you been doing research?
I have done research mainly between France and Switzerland. However, I interact with people across the world.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
I have been elected Physics Coordinator of the LHCb experiment, my two-year mandate starts on August 1rst, 2022. The Run 3 of the LHC is also starting now, so the next coming months will be very challenging and exciting for me and for all our community.
EPWS: Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
The barriers that I have faced and that I am facing are very subtle, sneaky one might say. It may take the form of an unsolicited “advice”, a genuine concern about my abilities to handle certain pieces of work or responsibilities. But the good news is that I have been always more stubborn than scared, so while facing misogyny and racism is exhausting, I have plenty of energy to push through.
I didn’t experience mentoring between women in a formal manner. However, I did spend a lot of time “studying” people I find inspiring and working out what is it that I can learn from them.
EPWS: What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
In Particle Physics we still have a lot of work to do on gender equality matters. We are around 15% of women in our experiment roughly with almost none at top management level. When I was awarded a post-doctoral position at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in 2009 at the time a competing colleague for the same job concluded that “they wanted a woman for this job”. At the time I was offended, with time I learnt that concrete actions to encourage women have to be taken intelligently to close to the gender gap.
EPWS: What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?
This question is worth a PhD thesis by itself.
It starts with children, how they are raised and educated: the stigma that girls are not good at Math starts when they are tiny.
The language we use is important, still today I hear statements like “…when a physicist does his analysis, he will …”. Moreover, who write reference letters for young women should make sure that they promote all the skills and not only her soft skills. Daily, the people in charge have the responsibility to create an environment where all voices, even the less loud ones can express themselves and their ideas.
Parental leaves should be respected and the responsibilities of women who return after a leave should be restored to them. Scheduling meetings after 17:00 will invertibility discriminate against young mothers and therefore should be avoided, I stop here, but there is so much more to say on this topic.
EPWS: Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
Networking in my experience has been based one to one interaction with younger colleagues of mine. Where, I very honestly share with them my experience the lessons that I am learning and prepare them for what may come.
EPWS: If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
Yes, if I had to start over again, I would pick fundamental physics all over again. What I would change is the way this topic is taught. At least when I was a student, the teaching was very unidirectional with classic lectures in a large auditorium. What I know for a fact is that the topics I master best are the ones where I first did my part of the learning, reading, etc., then interacted with teachers. Any system with inverted classes should be encouraged. I would also reconsider the way that students are evaluated. Not everyone is wired to sit exams with a strong time constraint on imposed dates. The beauty of the human mind comes from its differences and the teachings at the university system should reflect this.
EPWS: Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
This question is also worth a whole book, but here are a few key points: schedule your work intelligently, learn how to make a list of priorities to split the limited time that you have such that to maximize your scientific output and intellectual stimulation. Do not let anyone take you or your time and energy for granted. Have a clear set of goals and review them regularly. Never “shoot yourself in the knee” in a job interview, there is no need to focus the attention of the committee of what you “should” have known or have done better. Remain down to earth but keep learning as much as you possibly can and never under no circumstance censor yourself and your ambition. Look after your physical and mental health, no one will do it for you.