Interview with Prof. Bortoletto

4961Daniela Bortoletto is Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford. She is part of the Oxford ATLAS Group and her research focuses on the study of the Higgs Boson and the search of higher mass Higgs boson-like particles. Prof. Bortoletto is a very active supporter of the role of women in Physics, having founded the Women in Physics organization at Purdue University, USA in 1992 and having organised the first UK Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in March 2015. TSSR has had the pleasure to interview Prof. Bortoletto after a seminar held in the School of Physics, TCD entitled The Higgs Boson and Particle Physics at the LHC: a Progress Report and Plans for the Future, on Friday 30 October 2015.

Q: Can you outline your progression from an undergraduate Physics student all the way through to being appointed Professor at University of Oxford?

I received my undergraduate degree from the university of Pavia, Italy which was founded in 825 AD. In Pavia I was a member of Collegio Ghislieri, founded in 1567 by Pope Pius V to accommodate promising students experiencing economic hardship. Promising women were admitted starting in 1965. The environment at the university of Pavia and the competitive atmosphere of the “collegio” were extremely important to me. However, being admitted to the CERN summer student program really changed my life. Being at CERN was a mind-blowing experience. I had fabulous teachers. The research atmosphere was incredibly intense, and I decided there that I should become a particle physicist.

After completing my undergraduate degree, I decided to go to the USA for my Ph.D. and I joined the CLEO experiment. The CLEO collaboration contained about 100 physicists, and it was dedicated to the study of the b-quark. My husband-to-be, Ian Shipsey, also joined CLEO as a postdoc, and we got married in 1988. Unfortunately, just 6 months after our marriage and before I graduated, Ian got very seriously ill with leukemia. It was quite a challenging time, but with the help of my advisor and mentor Sheldon Stone, one of the world experts in b-quark physics, I was able to focus and obtain my Ph.D. in 1989.

Ian recovered almost miraculously, and we started to coordinate our careers in physics very carefully. Nearly 45% of married women physicists have physicist spouses and therefore face “dual-career” issues, since finding two positions at the same university is often difficult. Ian accepted a position as an assistant professor in particle physics at Purdue University, and I joined the same university as a postdoc. I remained in CLEO for less than three years as a postdoc, and then I started to apply for faculty positions. Since I received offers from other strong institutions, Purdue came through with an assistant professor position. At that point I decided to move my research to the CDF experiment at the Tevatron proton-antiproton collider at Fermilab in Chicago and to start exploring the energy frontier.

CDF was a great experiment and in 1995 I participated in the discovery of the last quark predicted by the standard model, the top quark, a 173 GeV elementary point-like particle almost as massive as a gold atom. I also started to work on silicon detectors for precision measurements of the positions and trajectories of charged particles. The high granularity provided by silicon detectors has allowed precision measurements at hadron colliders. My experience in CDF and the Tevatron was perfect training for the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

At Purdue I raised to the ranks from assistant, to associate, full, and finally became the E. M. Purcell distinguished professor of Physics. I loved working in the US and at Purdue. Nonetheless when Oxford recruited my husband and myself I was very keen to accept a new challenge. Oxford is one of the largest physics department in the world. I am delighted to be there and to be closer to the LHC.

Q: Can you give us some insight into how you ended up in science and in particular what is so enticing about Particle Physics?

I am surprised that I became a physics major, traveled to the U.S. to receive a Ph. D in physics, and then became first a professor of physics at a major U.S. research university and then at the University of Oxford. This was a very unlikely trajectory, since I come from a beautiful small town in the Italian Alps called Domodossola, and I am the first member of my family to even get an undergraduate education. I was always an avid reader, and when I was about twelve I became interested in physics after reading a book by George Gamow, a great storyteller, who was able to convey great excitement about past revolutions in physics like quantum mechanics and relativity.

As a high school student I excelled in every subject, especially physics and mathematics. I was quite uncertain about which degree I would seek after finishing high school. I originally planned to enrol in “chemistry & pharmaceutical technology”, a degree that at the time was believed to lead to a good job. It was my physics professor who first told me that my mathematical skills were very high and that I should enrol in mathematics or physics. I never regretted that choice. I find physics and particle physics completely fascinating. When one studies elementary particles one can see quantum mechanics and special relativity in action. Every time the LHC achieves higher energies we open a new regime of exploration. We are able to recreate in the laboratory conditions that existed in the early universe close to the Big Bang. If dark matter particles have masses at the TeV scale, they will discover them at the LHC. I also enjoy, the fact that we have to build our equipment and develop novel strategies of data analysis.

Q: Was there a particular person, place or event that you count among your key influences to date (scientific or otherwise)?

I think that the most important persons that have influenced my career are my physics professor in High School, Mauro Magri, and my Ph. D. Advisor, Sheldon Stone. I believe that without their encouragement and support I might have given up or chosen a different path.

Q: Have you found that being a woman in a STEM field has had difficulties? Are there advantages and disadvantages to this?

Statistics show that there is huge gender gap when it comes to female representation in physics. I am surprised that often I am still the only woman in the room in some of the meetings I attend. This can be quite intimidating especially when you begin your career. I do not focus on it since I am a very positive person.  I am trying to improve the atmosphere for younger women. I have organized both in the US and in the UK the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. This is a fabulous event that helps undergraduate women find the confidence to continue in physics.

Q: What is the value of scientific research? Do you think society and Governments around the world value it enough?

I strongly believe that a unique attribute of humans is their curiosity, their desire to understand nature and to develop models of how things work. Therefore, I believe that scientific research is extremely important for mankind. Of course scientific research is also important because it improves our standard of living. The acceleration of protons at the LHC and the observation of the resulting collisions require the development of novel technologies and great engineering. Particle accelerators are used in medicine to cure tumours and to produce radioactive isotopes for medical imaging. Advanced computing techniques are an integral part of all basic physics research. Many discoveries of the 20th century which revolutionized the world such as quantum mechanics, relativity, the transistor, the laser, splitting the atom, MRI and PET scans were done by physicists.

Q: Do you think the onus is on researchers to convey their results beyond the scientific community and out into greater society?

I do believe that researchers have the obligation to explain to the public why their research is important and how research benefits from public funding. I enjoy sharing the passion of my research with a broader audience. Science has produced remarkable progress in our understanding of nature and the universe. We need to celebrate these successes as we do with art, literature, and music.

Q: How important is publication? How do you feel about the pressure to publish in current research climate? Should negative results in research be published?

Publishing results is critical for progress in academia. There is great pressure to publish in order to be promoted to permanent positions in academia. I feel pressure to publish, to maintain funding in this very competitive research climate. In an interview Peter Higgs said “I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system”. It would be great if the pressure could decrease but I do not think it is going to change soon.

In my opinion publishing negative results is extremely important. For example, I was part of a team that searched for supersymmetry and the Higgs Boson at Fermilab in the USA. Our results and the techniques that we developed provided ground work for the LHC.

Q: Is there anything you would say to an undergraduate physics student unsure about where they are heading?

Physics research is fascinating and opens many different roads. Within physics, there are many sub-disciplines you can choose from, such as particle physics, solid state, bio-physics, etc. There are also many professions opened by a physics degree including medical physics, patent law, teaching, and of course academia, and research in government laboratories.

Q: Do you have anything exciting planned in the pipeline?

Now that the LHC is operating at 13 TeV I am searching for heavier Higgs bosons and for Higgs boson decays to dark matter particles. I am also preparing for the construction of the new tracking detectors that will be needed for a major upgrade of the LHC planned for around 2023, called High Luminosity LHC or HL-LHC. This upgrade is expected to increase the data delivered by the LHC by about 100 times what was has been achieved up to now.

Q: If you could change fields entirely, what else would interest you?

I would be very interested in econometrics, which is defined as “the quantitative analysis of actual economic phenomena based on the concurrent development of theory and observation, related by appropriate methods of inference”.  Economics is complex and challenging. Countries can take very different decisions about for example exiting a recession. I wonder how decisions are taken and how economical models are developed using data.


Blaise Delaney, TSSR Physics Editor 2016