Shadowing a CERN scientist and mother of two by Camilla Mørk Røstvik (University of Manchester)

Signing up for the shadowing scheme I was put together with Dr Marielle Chartier from the Physics Department within the School of Physical Sciences at the University of Liverpool’. After writing about physicists and physics for my PhD for two years, I realised that this was the first time I was going to talk with a physicist who happened to be female. Thus I entered into this with a growing awareness that the link between the science historian and the scientist is not only important, but political.

Dr Chartier and I met twice. In the first meeting we talked casually and got to know one another. After chatting about childcare and high-energy nuclear physics over coffee, I accompanied her to a meeting she was heading on an important and complex project. I think, watching Marielle in action, this is where I really started to see her. Not afraid to ask questions or be controversial, she moved the meeting on in a no-nonsense style, marathon-like through the questions and interactions. After the meeting Marielle explained parts of the project to me by drawing on a whiteboard, stopping to check that I understood, pen moving at the speed of light. I joined her and her collaborator/husband for lunch after, and throughout Marielle wanted to bring it back to her love of physics. Wary of being signed off as a ‘woman scientist’ Marielle, in this first meeting, also set the stage for what I already knew would be an interesting interview on issues of gender.

The next time we met was on the 18th December last year. I came prepared with questions for an interview, which turned into an over two hour long session interrupted by an unexpected fire alarm exercise. We talked about physics, childcare, maternity leave, colliders, managing millions, academia, marriage, the male/female ratio in science and strengths of being female. It was a refreshing day. I saw the challenges Marielle faces and she was open about discussing both her hopes and fears. Overwhelmingly what came across was her sense of pride and passion in her work. Not bending to my questions about the difficulties of the work-life balance, she asserted that things must get better, but that she managed both and loves both. Her office, a large space, is filled with books, her children’s photos and drawings, memories of large projects she has led and student papers to be read.

On the topic of gender Marielle expressed reservations about the AthenaSWAN award and similar systems designed to improve the female-male ratio in STEM fields. Although supportive on a whole, Marielle expressed concerns that when only women work for the changes, the majority are not on board. She was happy to back systems and projects designed to strengthen women’s representation in physics, but only if everyone plays their part. And as the first academic ever to take maternity leave in her department, the facts speak louder than any AthenaSWAN label can.

Marielle saw herself as outspoken and not afraid to ask difficult questions. Yet she was clear that this is not a gendered personality trait. “I am more French than woman” she explained, drawing interesting comparisons between French, American and UK physics work environments. Having worked in all countries she experienced how different they were, from scientific goals to policies on childcare. The UK is seen as a place where there are plenty of leadership opportunities, for those with a family and without.

On the questions of mentors Dr Chartier’s early teachers, two in particular, inspired her to work hard academically. Although naturally gifted she talked about how other people have always offered her opportunities and a ‘way back’ if what she was trying would not work out. However, things did work out and musing on the importance of that support, she emphasised how important these teachers had been. Today she is aware of her own mentor roles, as a senior scientist and as a woman.

Dr Chartier’s story is also a story of what happens to a department when women become a part of it. When pregnant, stairs, chairs and foreign travel, not to speak of work done with ionising radiation, became challenges to rethink. Similarly childcare responsibilities meant that meeting times needed to be shifted and that part-time work had to be combined with the department’s schedules. But I suspect there are also other subtle changes to a department like Marielle’s. Her academic credentials, rich and international as they are, add to the AthenaSWAN awards and her presence means typical male banter changes. The way she dresses changes the visual aesthetic of the department where she, in a sea of black and marine sweaters, wears colour and, for perhaps the first time, challenges the physics uniform that anthropologist Sharon Treewak has described in such detail.[1]

The overall impression of my days with Marielle are not what I expected. I know I can never write about physicists again without taking diversity into account. I know that it is possible to be a mother of two and a world class specialist. I will leave the last word for Dr Chartier, talking here on her work at CERN, serving perhaps also as a metaphor for the future for women in STEM fields:

“I’m positive! You know it will happen. We ask the big questions!”

Camilla Mørk Røstvik is a PhD researcher and GTA in CHSTM and Art History at the University of Manchester. She runs a feminist reading group and organised the Suffragette conference in Manchester March 2013.


[1] Sharon Trewak, Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physics (Harvard University Press, 1992)

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