In 1982, when Marcela Carena (pictured left) left her home in Buenos Aires to study physics at a prestigious institute 1000 miles to the south, her mother had a fit. "We owned a small ranch and she wanted me to study something useful -- agriculture or economics," says Carena. Even today, it's uncommon for Argentine youth to leave home, yet her intrepid decision has paid off with scientific adventure, world travel, and considerable achievement.

Now based at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, Carena is one of the top scientists in her field. Although her research ranges from the smallest particles of matter to the larger, ever-expanding universe, Carena has always stayed true to herself and led an otherwise normal life. She says collaborations, whether at home, at work, or the classroom, are her key to success. Carena's life experiences are proof that no one achieves success by doing it alone.

Starting Out

Carena didn't set out to become a physicist. She enrolled in engineering at the Instituto Tecnologico Buenos Aires but discovered that it only stimulated one facet of her intellect, so she began studying philosophy. "I kind of fluctuated between what I would call one extreme and the other. One was very applied and the second was much more...I don't know, wild-thinking." She enjoyed them both and then she found physics. "[With physics] sometimes you have to be very precise and sometimes you have to have a little more wild-thinking if you want to have interesting ideas." For Carena, the middle ground led her to the Instituto Balseiro at the Centro Atomico Bariloche in the shadow of the Andes Mountains.

That first year studying physics at Balseiro was the toughest for Carena. She's an only child whose father died in her last year of high school. Her decision to leave home and study physics met with a lot of resistance. "I'm a very strong-willed person," she says. "That made it very hard at the beginning because my mother wanted me to be happy but of course not happy away from her." But the challenge of the curriculum intrigued her. "I think I was a bit bored with my high school science program. It wasn't very demanding. And that's what really drove me. Balseiro was the largest challenge I could go for at that moment."

International Travel

Carena's career took her from Argentina to doctoral studies in Germany, followed by postdoc work at Purdue University, the Max Planck Institute in Munich, and then at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva. By 1996, her husband, Carlos Wagner (whose career has mirrored her own since Balseiro), was offered a staff position at CERN while she was invited to participate in cutting-edge research at Fermilab.

In one of the toughest decisions of her career, Carena chose to move to Illinois with her infant son, Sebastian, while Wagner remained in Europe. For three years, they commuted across the Atlantic. In 2000, the family settled in the Chicago area. Wagner is now head of the theory group at Argonne National Lab and teaches at the University of Chicago.

Meanwhile, Carena has continued her research at Fermilab, one of the world's leading facilities for high-energy physics research. The Tevatron, the world's highest-energy particle accelerator, has allowed Fermilab scientists to conduct groundbreaking research into the nature of elementary particles, including the discovery of the top quark.

Carena hopes the Tevatron will help her to solve some of the mysteries of theoretical particle physics. Her ongoing research involves determining how fundamental particles acquire mass, the workings of supersymmetry, exploration of extra-dimensional theories, the relationships among electromagnetic weak and strong interactions, how the matter-antimatter asymmetry of the universe came to be, the origin of dark matter and dark energy, and the links between particle physics and cosmology.

The Secret to Building a Successful Career: People

Beginning with the camaraderie of the other physics students in Argentina and continuing with a succession of mentors, Carena has found support and sustenance in her relationships with her colleagues.

"Two of my professors at Bariloche, Luis Masperi and Andres Garcia, showed me the power of mathematics linked to physics." Roberto Peccei, her thesis advisor at the University of Hamburg at DESY, encouraged her passion for high-energy research. At Purdue, she met Thomas Clark who helped her learn to work collaboratively within her field.

While in the U.S. she also met Fermilab's William Bardeen. "I was fascinated by his way of thinking about issues and by the way he would ask questions and get to the core of a problem." Once in Munich, she teamed up with Stefan Pokorski. "With him I developed my ability to tackle a problem and think about it in the right way to do physics." Then at CERN, she worked with Mariano Quiros, who remains one of her most active collaborators.

Her relationships with colleagues have led to a unique philosophy on physics research. "When you focus so much of your life on what you do, it's critical to work with people that you really like," she says. "It's important that I have fun and excitement, but mainly that I feel comfortable. Most of my collaborators have become my friends. My closest collaborator is my husband, Carlos, who has been most supportive even at times when working with a spouse becomes a little bit challenging."

Being Different is OK

From the start, Carena struggled with being different. "Even in physics, not everybody feels comfortable working with someone with a very different background." She initially tried to fit in better with her colleagues but discovered that it made her unhappy. "So, I took a strong step to be more the way I want to be, which makes me more of a minority. But that's OK."

Carena feels that it's important to be a role model for younger scientists. She cites other women at the lab who are balancing normal lives without sacrificing the quality of their research. "It's good for others to see that, because then you realize that you can be successful being the way that you are."

Following in Her Footsteps

Even today, Carena marvels that she can make her living studying a topic as fascinating as physics. "There's so much room for creativity, developing new ideas, finding new astonishing results and understanding better the world that surrounds us."

She believes the field offers incredible opportunities to students. A career in physics, she says, combines the stimulation of international exchange with the opportunity to lead a normal family life, both of which are very important to Carena.

It's not enough to be smart, she says; students need to have a passion for the subject. They need to work hard, set high goals, cultivate a strong will to pursue the field, and develop the discipline to make the choices necessary to succeed (see sidebar).

Giving Back

Grateful for the opportunities she has received, Carena is now opening doors for others. She recently initiated a Fermilab-funded program that invites Latin American doctoral students to participate in research at the lab. The program exposes students to a leading research facility and offers greater access to an international cadre of researchers. It infuses new enthusiasm and ideas into the lab through exchange and mentoring of bright students. And, it forges relationships with the student's advisors and universities, opening doors for future collaboration.

After the successful completion of this year's program, Carena has funding to support two students a year but hopes that the program will grow. "I'm in a position now of making a contribution, of giving back. This is the least I can do."

Nevertheless, Carena doesn't define success solely on the basis of rankings or citations. Just as important is happiness with what she is doing and finding her own way within the physics society and with developing a normal life. Cultivating balance and a certain comfort level within her environment have also proven indispensable. All contribute equally to her picture of success.

By all accounts Carena is successful, and her colleagues anticipate that she will continue to distinguish herself with exceptional research. And what about her mother? Carena laughs: "I think she's extremely happy with the way my life has gone."

Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at AMSasso@aol.com.

Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at amsasso at nasw dot org.