Laura Baudis is an astrophysicist interested in the nature of dark matter in the Universe. She is a Professor in the Physics Department at the University of Zurich and takes a role of Editor-in-Chief of Experimental Physics II: Astroparticle Physics in The European Physical Journal C.
Why did you become a Scientist?
As a young person I was fascinated by math, but also by literature, philosophy and architecture. In high school, I was mostly interested in math, philosophy and computer science - in the late 80s we explored all kinds of programming languages, including assembler language and we were excited to write code for our school “supercomputer” - back then it occupied an entire room. However, in the last year of high school I became interested in quantum mechanics, so I decided to study physics and astronomy at the University of Heidelberg. As a student, I was fascinated by astroparticle physics and cosmology. In the mid-nineties astroparticle physics was a relatively young field and the existence of dark matter, for instance, wasn’t established as strongly as it is today. Embarking on a search for dark matter particles seemed a formidable challenge at the time.
What are today’s hottest trends/topics in your area of research and what challenges still remain?
We know since many decades that most of the matter in our Universe is dark - it does not emit, nor absorb any light, we only see it through its gravitational effects on luminous matter. But one of the greatest mysteries is yet to be solved, namely the identification of the nature of this invisible substance that governs the masses of galaxies, including our own Milky Way. The challenge is thus to reveal the microscopic properties of dark matter. We think it is made of new, very weakly interacting particles, and we are building ever more sensitive detectors to hopefully first discover and then characterize the properties of this new type of matter. After many years of detector development, we are just now reaching sensitivities where we may have a real chance of discovery.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a woman in STEM?
Although I believe the situation improved compared to twenty years ago, I am still faced with prejudices. When I had my first child in the last year of my PhD studies, I was told by a Max Planck director to stay at home for seven years, for the benefit of my child. Even today well-meaning people often inquire how I manage to work full time, with children, while my husband, who is also a scientist, never faces this question. As a society, I think we are far from having reached gender equality, in spite of all the research on the subject, and existing efforts to improve the situation.
What is one change that, in your opinion, would hugely benefit aspiring women scientists?
I am not sure that one change alone would suffice, all measures are worthwhile pursuing. In particular, we must convince a higher number of girls to study math and natural sciences, we must foster their natural talents, and also convince them (and society) that a family and children are not under their responsibility alone. Most importantly, young women must have the confidence that “a life in science” can be compatible with many lifestyle choices. They must be encouraged to pursue their passion and convinced - hopefully by many good examples - that they can have a rewarding career in science.