ATLAS physicist wins L'Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science award

12 March 2015 | By

Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli. (Image: Brigitte Lacombe)

ATLAS physicist Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli is one of the five laureates of the L'Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards this year. The winners, selected from five different regions of the world, will be recognized for their contributions to ground-breaking discoveries in the physical sciences on 18 March at a ceremony in Paris, France.

El Moursli – who contributed to the simulation and construction of the electromagnetic calorimeter of the ATLAS detector – is Vice President of the Mohammed V University, in Rabat, Morocco, where she leads a team working on the consolidation of a Distributed Analysis Support Team (DAST) for ATLAS. The DAST is a team of shifters forming the front line for all help requests on distributed data analysis. The focus of her team's analysis is on top-quark and Higgs-boson physics.

El Moursli won the prize for Africa and the Arab States; inorganic chemist Yi Xie for Asia/Pacific; physical chemist Carol Robinson won the award for Europe; astronomer Thaisa Storchi Bergmann for Latin America and polymer chemist Molly Shoichet for North America.

We met with El Moursli to talk about her life as a researcher. Excerpts:

Why did you decide to pursue physics?
I always topped maths in school and when my father found out, he was surprised that a girl could be so intelligent. Mathematics was very easy for me. When I went to university in Grenoble, France, I discovered physics. For a long time, I didn't understand much, so I spent hours in the library reading. I still read a lot, not just about high-energy physics but all fields of physics, because it is important to understand. When I had to declare a major, I chose physics because it was a challenge.

Your father was surprised?
A girl wasn't expected to be good at maths I guess. My father was an entrepreneur but my mother didn't have access to education. He looked after my two brothers' homeworks. My three sisters and I were sort of left alone. When I wanted to go to university in Grenoble, France, people didn't understand why. In my country, a girl leaves her home only when she is married. It took some convincing and my father came with me to make sure everything was okay. But he was always supportive and told me to finish my education before getting married.

What has it been like for you as a female in the physical sciences?
As a student, whether you are a boy or a girl, you have more or less equal opportunity. When you start working, as a woman, you have to work extra hard. This is true not just in physics but in most professional settings. You have to be better than your male counterparts, and it is not easy trying to balance family and career. When my children were little, I would work while they were sleeping, wake up extra early and stay up late. My mother and sisters helped me out a lot.

Do you have a role model?
I've read Marie Curie's biography many times since school. When I am tired and exhausted, I often think of her. She was an immigrant woman whom nobody really took much notice of, but who worked hard, was genuinely curious, and went on to do great things.

What advice would you give those trying to balance their career in science and family?
Finding a balance is difficult, no matter what career. I have two daughters and a son. It is crucial to have an understanding with your spouse and closely-knit family members who are willing to help. As a woman, it is very important to have something for yourself. When your children grow up and leave, often, as the mother, you are left with a void. If a woman has something that is her own, when they leave, she will have something for herself. For me, this was physics.

How does winning such an award help physics or science education?
The king of Morocco invited me to be a member of the Academy of Science. I will be one of the four women and 60 men. I hope it encourages women and girls, especially in Africa and the Arab world, to pursue higher education in the sciences. Countries like ours focus on applied sciences but creating a strong basis for theory and experiments in fundamental research is even more important. It allows us scientists access to discussions on policies that could create an impact in future research endeavours.