"I suppose I'm not a typical physicist," admits Isabel Bejar Alonso, pictured at left. Nonetheless, the 30-year-old quality assurance engineer believes that she has an important role to play in pushing back the frontiers of her discipline, even though she never has her name on a research paper.
Bejar is engaged in the science of the very small--the search for fundamental particles. And she's part of a very big team. As an employee of CERN's (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) Technical Services Division (TSD) she's one of the 2500 staff it takes to build, run, and maintain a facility used by half of the world's particle physicists. "Making the best place for them" by creating the finest infrastructure is how Bejar describes her contribution to research.
It was that other branch of "big physics," cosmology, and the TV programmes of Carl Sagan that inspired Bejar to study physics in Barcelona. But by the time she finished her degree she already knew "that I like more to work on applied things than in research." So following her philosophy that "you must do what you think you are best suited for," and her belief that a physics degree is a positive asset for very many careers because it teaches you that "there are no problems, only solutions," she pursued a course in industrial quality management, and then got a job with management consultancy firm Anderson Consulting (now Accenture). Getting even a small taste of such "real-world" experience, for example through a 3-month summer placement programme, is something that Bejar recommends for all young scientists, no matter what their career ambitions.
And she might very well have stayed at Anderson. Her return to the world of physics was prompted by "not really a scientific reason," but one that many will understand --Bejar's engineer boyfriend was working at CERN.
Initially funded by a grant from Spain's Centre of Development of Technology, once at CERN Bejar was ideally placed to spot the opportunities, and for the past 4.5 years has been employed as a staff member on what is known as a 3+3 contract (an initial 3-year contract, renewable for a further 3 years). This may be nearing its end, but Bejar is confident of obtaining a permanent position in her current division. The TSD is responsible for constructing, maintaining, and operating all of the technical infrastructure at CERN--everything from transforming the electricity obtained from the French and Swiss networks and the cooling and ventilation systems for the accelerators, to the logistics of transporting people around the huge site and the fire and gas detection safety systems for the accelerators, she explains.
Bejar's job has changed considerably since she joined CERN. While at first she dedicated 100% to hands-on engineering tasks, today she estimates that she is dealing closely with engineering projects for only 25% of her time. The rest of her time is divided between human resources, training, project management, budgeting, and auditing duties on behalf of her division. But in this, Bejar believes she is playing to her strengths. Considering her career decisions, Bejar reflects: "My development has demonstrated that I'm a better manager than researcher."
Supporting the career development of TSD's 200 staff and 20 students is an important part of Bejar's role today. Like Bejar, very many of CERN's "engineers" have a physics background, and at a place like CERN, that is "essential," she believes. Of course, she says, it is possible to think only as an engineer "and decide that knowing how to work a cooling system, you know everything." But if you don't know what you are cooling, and why you are cooling it, "you are losing half of the scope." So, "you need to know if there is radiation, you need to know how it works ... because when you're designing something in engineering you need to know your users." Staff and students, therefore, take part in in-house courses on everything from beam dynamics to quarks. And as well as physics, management training is on the agenda. In technical support there are many contracts to be managed and "a well-trained staff means a well-managed contract," she points out.
But there is far more to learn at CERN than management and particle physics. "Of course we have to give great facilities for great physicists and great engineers to make the greatest science in the world," says Bejar, but she believes that CERN has a further, and very special, mission--fostering collaboration between many nations.
Bejar urges young scientists to take advantage of the many opportunities to spend time at CERN, as summer or Ph.D. students, for example. And when they arrive, she tells them to "take the opportunity to meet people and to share things with people and not to centre yourself only with people of your own nationality, because you will have no other chance." The CERN experience really is different, she feels, having spent some time at a French university as a student. "Normally you are in a place where you have mainly people from one nationality and some foreign people," she explains. But in the CERN melting pot, language hang-ups melt away. When the majority of people with whom you are speaking French or English are themselves not native speakers of either language, you can relax and communication becomes much freer. "When someone makes mistakes it's a normal thing ... and this encourages people because it's not a problem," she asserts.
The CERN environment is special in another way too. "You can work in engineering," on very technical, industrial projects, "with a university philosophy." This academic atmosphere means "you really can take a coffee with a visitor, or with a division leader, or with a brilliant physicist. It's the openness," she explains. Meanwhile, find yourself in the vast cafeteria at 3 a.m. and you're likely to see a small group clustered round a sheet of equations in heated discussion. "In that sense it looks like a university, with more facilities than a university," describes Bejar.
The engineers of the TSD don't generally meet visiting experimental and theoretical physicists in the course of their work, but they certainly get to know them well enough to chat over coffee, explains Bejar. The reason: The CERN community is a close-knit one "and normally you have a lot of parties" which is where the long-term staff get to meet the short-term visitors.
But the rapid turnover of scientists is one of the drawbacks for long-term staff such as Bejar. Not only can you be working far from your home country, she points out, but "you have to become used to having friends that leave CERN" and scatter all over the world. Of course this makes for a lot of foreign holiday opportunities, but at the same time, "sometimes you feel like you're the only one remaining here, and all the friends that you have met in all these parties [who] stay here only 1 year, they are leaving one after the other."
How does Bejar view the job prospects of those moving on from CERN? For those in technical services she has no fears. "I can do the same work wherever," she highlights, and her experience managing "international contracts for nearly all technical matters" is widely marketable. But in a tough economic climate she worries that commercial employers are not open-minded enough to spot the potential of people who have had very specialist roles developing the machines themselves.
This lack of openness is "one of the reasons for the loss of competitiveness of Europe," she believes. But in fact "probably the best thing that CERN gives you is flexibility." Here, she says, you are given opportunities to "tackle different problems and change your work in a dynamic way." "If your job has changed three times in 5 years, why can't you learn a new role in a new environment in just a few months," she asks. "You have worked in a scientific world, you know you can learn, you are not afraid of learning these new things. You train yourself, and you recognise your limits, but they are so wide."
Meanwhile Bejar is very happy to be staying at CERN for the foreseeable future. Not least because "having worked at CERN I think the only place I would like to work is another international organisation, something like the European Space Agency." Not only would she miss the multinational character, but also the "feeling that you are doing important things." She explains, "we are really doing things that nobody else is doing now ... you don't know if what you are doing is going to be useful tomorrow, but you are sure that what you are doing will be useful for future innovations."
She advises young scientists that, "if you feel yourself that you have other qualities," that there are other things that you can do better than research, "and that you can contribute to science in a different way ... you have to take another path." Her experience at CERN tells her that physicists "can do an incredible job in finance and in computer science." And in so doing they can play their part to enable those whose talent lies with research to have the best facilities and environment for their work.