My very first interest in science was astronomy, which I loved in high school. When I got to Rutgers as an undergraduate, I studied physics, because physics is the basis of astronomy. I love it, because it describes the basics of everyday life; the nature of how things work. You constantly get to ask the question "Why?". Then when I learned about high-energy particle physics, that's when I thought "Ha! This is what I want to do."
My research here at Rutgers is in search for answers to fundamental questions, probing the basics of matter in an attempt to understand the origin of mass and determine if it can be explained with the yet-to-be-detected Higgs boson or new physics beyond the Standard Model, such as Supersymmetry. And, does this "new physics" illuminate the origin of dark matter of astrophysics? The composition of dark matter is unknown and yet it forms roughly a quarter of our universe. This is one of the enduring mysteries of the day.
To answer these questions I analyze data provided in proton-antiproton collisions at the Fermilab Tevatron, where I also worked as a postdoc before I came back to Rutgers, my alma mater. These computationally intensive analyses are performed with my graduate students at Rutgers University. In particular, I study the properties of the heaviest quark called the top quark, which (due to its large mass) has a strong relationship with the mass of the Higgs (or with an unknown new particle!), which gives other particles their mass.
You can think of these high-energy collision experiments as going back in time, to the moment just after the big bang. This burst of energy lead to the formation of matter and antimatter, which clustered to form stars and galaxies. It is kind of ironic that we now need these huge accelerators and colliders to recreate these circumstances, while nature conjured them up in a fraction of a second long ago.
It also interesting to see how much the field has evolved in a short time. During my PhD research less than ten years ago, I worked in a small group of approximately 80 people. Now I am also preparing for the data analysis from the highest energy ever collider in the world, the Large Hadron Collider (the LHC) in Geneva Switzerland. The "center of mass" energy of the proton-proton collisions we will use there will be seven times higher than at Fermilab, and the size of the collaboration is also much bigger, about 2000 people! The experiments at the LHC will push the standard model to its limits.
One of the things I love about my field is that I have the privilege of meeting so many people from different countries. The cultural differences enhance our interactions; and I find this to be the icing on the cake. As an undergrad, I also got a BA in French to educate myself in the language. Now, with my frequent travels to Geneva, it turns out to be a very useful degree.
Physics is still a male dominated field, but a woman can also succeed if she works hard, just like a man. One has to work hard to get recognition, but once you are recognized and people see your results and your passion, then it does not make any difference at all if you are a man or a woman. You just have to not to pay attention to the fact that often you are the only woman in the room, and just do your job well.
Fortunately, I have had the luck to work with some of the top-notch women in the field. They were real role models for me; I tried to be like them. As a postdoc, I was inspired to work harder and achieve my goals, because I saw how successful they were. It made me realize that maybe I could also have a career in this field.
Because I think having a role model is so important, I mentored undergraduate students as a Bunting Cobb fellow in graduate school, which was a valuable experience. I saw how important it was to show the students that I was pursuing a career in physics. I often noticed that they were not scared anymore to think of a math or physics career for themselves, and I highly recommend for women undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences to enroll in this program. Now that I have returned to Rutgers as faculty, I plan to get further involved in the Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science and Engineering, which is the project that offers the Bunting Cobb Fellowships. Through such programs I would like to provide further opportunities to young women from Rutgers. I plan to do the same for young women from local high schools, to pursue careers in science by participating in my research.