Berkeley Lab

Natalie Roe: How an Early Boost Made a Big Difference

As college graduation was approaching, I wanted more opportunity for hands-on work in physics before starting graduate school. I had been working for Professor Carlo Rubbia and knew that he was leading an experiment at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland called UA1.  I wanted to see what the world of particle physics was all about, but as an undergrad, at that time there was no mechanism to get me there.

image of Natalie Roe

It just so happened that Mary K. Gaillard, now an emeritus professor at UC Berkeley and a very well-known particle theorist, was visiting from CERN to give the Loeb lecture at Harvard. I went to hear her talk and was introduced to her afterwards. She encouraged me to go to CERN. She must have talked to Carlo Rubbia about it, because later when I asked him about it he agreed to support me.

However, there was some problem with the funding to support me.  Then another female physicist, Anne Kernan, who was on the faculty of UC Riverside—I had never met her—stepped up and said she would provide the funding. When I arrived at CERN, she met me at the airport. I had no money when I arrived, and it was going to be awhile before I got paid, so she even withdrew some money from her bank account for me.

So between the three of them I was able to get this job at CERN for a year on [the] UA1 [experiment] the year before it actually started taking data. I worked in electronics, and I got to see how a big collaboration works; I learned a little about the predicted W and Z bosons that UA1 was looking for and whose discovery led to Rubbia’s Nobel Prize in physics; and I also heard about the super symmetric particles that they hoped to find. I got very excited about the field of particle physics, and  from there I decided to continue in particle physics and go to grad school. That set me on my path.

So I guess the lesson is, these small interventions early on can make a big difference in the direction that your path takes. If you think of yourself as a vector, you’re going in some direction, but you’re not sure exactly which direction, and a small change in direction early on can end up having a big impact on where you end up.

Looking back it is remarkable actually, given how few senior women there were in physics, especially then—this was in the early 1980s—that two senior women physicists both had a big impact on my eventual career path in particle physics.

-Natalie Roe, Director, Physics Division