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Feature - Profile: Freya Blekman

Profile: Freya Blekman, from hockey to Higgs


An active researcher, Freya Blekman has responsibility for some of the software which will process data from the (CMS) detector. As such, she will be right at the forefront when investigations into the particle collisions begin. (iop.org)

Image courtesy SET-Routes

Editor's note: As part of an ongoing series on women in grid computing, iSGTW presents profiles of women researchers.

What do you do, and where are you located?

I work as a physicist for Cornell University in the United States, but effectively I am stationed at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

What's the best thing about your job?

As a scientist, I learn something new every day, and I expect that it will be like that for the rest of my career. At CERN, I am fortunate enough to work with some of the brightest people in the world. This is very special: when you're doing science, you find out that it doesn't matter whether you come from Abu Dhabi, Adelaide, Amsterdam or Arkansas. We all work toward a common goal: understanding the building blocks of matter.

What is your area of scientific interest?

My specialization is elementary particle physics . . . using big accelerators to understand very small particles.

The actual day-to-day work is fun and varied, I travel a lot and do something different every day, I really enjoy that a lot. One day I might be putting together a new detector with a screwdriver or soldering iron, while the next day I might be calculating and checking physics calculations or writing programs to analyze data from the accelerator.

It is also a great way to move abroad. I lived in Chicago for two years during my Ph.D., after that I lived in London for a few years and am now in Switzerland. But one of the best things about my profession is that we work in international teams and are doing groundbreaking research. This also involves a lot of working together and communication, something most people don't immediately expect that in physics.

Blekman did her PhD at Nikhef, the Dutch National Institute for Particle Physics. Image courtesty of Nikhef

How has your career progressed so far?

I grew up in Amsterdam, where I also went to university, studying experimental physics at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. During the last year of my masters, I was fortunate enough to spend a summer at CERN under the CERN Summer Student Program. I really enjoyed it, and it gave me a good idea of what research in particle physics was all about. I then jumped at the opportunity to do a PhD at NIKHEF, the Dutch National Institute for Particle Physics.

During my PhD, I spent a few years in the United States at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Chicago. There I studied the properties of the top quark: the heaviest elementary particle currently known (it weighs about the same as a gold atom, which is not that much until you realize that a gold atom contains hundreds and hundreds of elementary particles). After my PhD, I was hired by Imperial College London to work on the Compact Muon Solenoid project at CERN, which happened to be the same project I worked on as a summer student.

How do you like Geneva?

Geneva is a nice town, I love skiing and it is very easy to get to the mountains for a nice afternoon or weekend of snowy entertainment. In summer I hang out around lake Geneva, where there is a festival each weekend. Great, I love going to see live music. When I was living in Amsterdam I also was a regular at the Milky Way and Paradiso. I also play hockey in Switzerland, which is quite a change compared to The Netherlands because there is only one ladies league in the country . . .

For more, download a podcast interview with Freya Blekman here.

-Dan Drollette, iSGTW. Excerpts courtesy SET-Routes School Ambassadors

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