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Interview of Adriana Pálffy: We need measures to support a career in physics and having a family

Posted By Administration, Thursday 20 August 2020
Updated: Thursday 13 August 2020

Author: Luc Bergé

Adriana Pálffy is a theoretical physicist working at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany. By understanding light-matter interaction at the borderline between atomic, nuclear and quantum physics, she aims at obtaining quantum control over nuclear transitions. Her first contacts with physics started in her home town Bucharest, Romania, where she did her undergraduate studies. Adriana received her Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany in 2006. She later moved to the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics and became a group leader in 2011. Adriana was a Distinguished Visitor Fellow of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance in 2012 and 2013 at the University of the West of Scotland and the Strathclyde University. In 2019 she was awarded the Hertha Sponer Prize of the German Physical Society and the Röntgen Prize of the Justus Liebig University in Giessen for her research on the mutual control between x-ray photons and atomic nuclei. Just recently, Adriana obtained a Heisenberg Fellowship from the German Science Foundation that will allow her to move to the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nueremberg in the fall 2020.

Luc Bergé, President-Elect of the EPS and chair of the EPS Equal Opportunities Committee (LB), interviewed Adriana Pálffy (AP).

LB: Why did you choose to study physics?
AP: According to a family joke, when I was three years old, visiting family friends asked me what would my profession be when I grew up. I replied “I’ll be a physicist like my mother”, although my mother is actually an electrical engineer! So you might say that my interest in physics began in the cradle. It was definitely supported by my mother, who was making up nice children’s stories for me about physical phenomena. This interest remained as I grew older, so I ended up indeed studying physics and becoming a physicist, “like my mother”.

LB: Any worry to match your family life and a career in physics?
AP:I have two small children, so far no permanent position, and the academia job market in Germany is very competitive. This does not make things easy. I am trying my best, but obviously I have less time to work long hours than my – mostly male and often childless – colleagues have. However, no matter the consequences, I wouldn’t have liked to miss a family just because of the career. Society should work on avoiding that scientists – male or female – need to make such a choice. It should not be about family OR job. But it takes some effort to offer conditions that enable having both family and a job.

LB: Are you worried about finding a job in physics?
AP: Yes, I worry about finding a job in academia within the geographical area which is also suitable for my family. The famous two-body or many-body problem for physicists and in particular female physicists with a family is notoriously difficult to solve. Generally speaking, I believe that finding a job as a physicist in the industry or other fields should be reasonably easy. Finding a permanent position in Germany in the academic milieu is very difficult, since there are only very few open positions. There were years where only one or no position with my profile (theoretical atomic/nuclear physics and quantum optics) was advertised at all. At the end of the day, you almost have to believe in miracles.

LB: What has been the personally most rewarding experience and also the biggest difficulty encountered so far in your career?
AP: Scientifically, I had many rewarding moments when projects were completed with nice results and good publications. A clear highlight was the year 2019, when I was awarded two prizes, the Hertha Sponer Prize of the German Physical Society, and later on the Röntgen Prize of the Justus Liebig University in Giessen for my research on x-ray quantum optics. I did my PhD in Giessen, and being awarded the Röntgen Prize from my Alma Mater meant very much to me. As for difficult moments, I think I cannot complain much – apart from minor disappointments, only the overall career situation poses a major question mark.

LB: Did you encounter any difficulty in finding funding for PhD or a post-doc position related to the fact that you are a woman?
AP: No, at that level definitely not. And also later in my experience with third-party funding so far I cannot say I felt any disadvantages in being female. What does feel strange is to be the only female candidate at interviews for professorships. This always raises questions in my head. Am I what they call in Germany the “quota” female candidate? Is this for real?

LB: Any suggestion to guarantee a balanced gender representation in physics?
AP: We probably ask for the impossible! Although the situation is much better in this respect in France than in Germany. You might therefore have better answers than me. However, I can throw in some arguments. We need more female students in physics to start with. For this we need a cool and more “female” image for physics in schools and early education. We need more female role models. And we need measures to support doing physics and having a family in the same time. It is with having a family that men and women stop being equal through the very asymmetry implemented by nature. This turning point comes early – with young people usually in their twenties or thirties – and it is decisive for what career paths women decide to pursue.

LB: Any particular advice for a young aspiring researcher?
AP: Choose your goals realistically but strategically and then give everything to reach them!

LB: Do you have any female ‘physicist cult figure’ or ‘role model’?
AP: That is a good question. I don’t think I have a particular role model, although I do admire very much the life and work of Marie Skłodowska Curie. What did help a lot was to see that there are women in physics and natural sciences which have succeeded with career and family. I think this is very important for young women. I would say that we are less bold to choose a path that wasn’t taken so far (and this makes Marie Curie so special). If all your successful colleagues are male, single or with a housewife at home taking care of the kids, then you start wondering whether this is the right place for you. I was very luck to meet early on as a young postdoc a number of successful female scientists that encouraged me to continue. This was not by chance – it was part of a mentoring program of the Robert-Bosch Foundation – and I am very grateful that I was given this opportunity.

Adriana Pálffy

Tags:  atomic physics  Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics  nuclear physics  quantum optics  theoretical physics 

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