While science as a profession has made strides toward gender equality, some fields lag—notably physics and engineering. For female scientists, cracking the glass ceiling in these fields requires not just dogged passion and dedication but also a refusal to be cowed by long odds.
A prime example is Lia Merminga, a rare woman in the top echelons of physics. Today, she heads the accelerator division for TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, but she learned much of her determination and perseverance—not to mention her technical knowledge and teamwork skills—at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s (Fermilab's) Tevatron accelerator when she was a grad student.
"The motto of our experiment was, 'often wrong, never in doubt,' " Merminga says. The team printed t-shirts with that motto, written in Greek, acknowledging the fact that many of the theories they tested were eventually proved wrong. "But for at least a period of time, we were never in doubt that they were correct."
Likewise, Merminga never doubted that she could excel in science. After earning her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1989, she joined the accelerator theory group as a visiting physicist at Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. Three years later, she joined the Center for Advanced Studies of Accelerators (CASA) at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia. She worked her way up through the ranks and in 2002 became director of CASA's beam physics group. In 2008, TRIUMF recruited her to lead its accelerator program, making her one of the most senior scientists in Canada.
This article is part of a Science Careers special issue on Women in Science. See also:
* “Just Herself” 
Today, Merminga manages her dream project: leading the design and construction of a new accelerator facility to produce rare isotopes for nuclear physics and medicine. "It has been a huge opportunity for me to expand as a scientific leader," she says.
When she comes home after work, her priorities change from nuclear physics to nuclear family. She's married to a fellow physicist, and they have a teenage son.
Science Careers sat down with Merminga at the February 2012 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes Science Careers) in Vancouver, Canada, to discuss her rise in physics, navigating the competing demands of being a scientist and being a mother, and the direction she hopes to take accelerator physics research.
These interview highlights were edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: How did you first become interested in physics?
Q: What attracted you to accelerator physics?
My current husband became a postdoc at Fermilab and made me aware that they had a graduate program in accelerator science. I was fascinated by the fact that you are studying something that is quite deep. These are really very rigorous scientific questions but you have the opportunity to make progress in relatively short time scales compared to high-energy physics.
Q: Why do these questions fascinate you?
Accelerator science touches upon many fields, and I find that very attractive. I can design and build accelerators that are used to study the most fundamental questions of our nature, to study the Higgs particle or dark matter and dark energy. And here at TRIUMF, I work on nuclear physics accelerators and the cyclotron, which is used for materials science and nuclear medicine. So, you can enable science on multiple fronts.
Q: What do you consider your major accomplishments to be so far at TRIUMF?
Also, one of our challenges at TRIUMF is that our plans and our goals are typically more ambitious than our resources can support. But so far, we are quite successful in keeping our science program strong while building our new accelerator.
Q: What are your hopes for the accelerator division at TRIUMF?
Q: What was it like moving from a postdoc at SLAC to becoming a staff scientist, then director of the Center for the Advanced Studies of Accelerators at Jefferson Lab?
Q: There are very few women at the highest levels of administration in physics and accelerator physics. What has your experience been like?
I feel it is very important to be good technically. And then nothing else matters. If you know your stuff, then you are okay. That’s my experience.
Q: Have you noticed a difference in how people treat you due to your gender?
Q: As you’ve moved up in the professional ranks, has that treatment changed?
Q: What is it like raising your son and building a career?
Q: Why do you think women are underrepresented in physics in particular?
One factor is that boys tend to be more aggressive in the classroom, and they are not as afraid to ask questions. I went to an all-girls high school where I didn’t experience this sort of competition. I think this gave me the assurance and self esteem to say, “I’m also good, and I can pursue physics and math.”
Q: How would you describe the challenges facing young women in graduate school now?
On average, I don’t feel I’ve been discriminated against. If I’m invited to give a talk somewhere and I’m chosen because they want to have gender equality—by and large, I want to take this opportunity. And I try to do a very good job. But I will use the opportunity to be out there and say, "Yes, women can be as good as men, and better. We are also a significant force in this field."
Q: Do you have advice for young women who are interested in a physics career?
I found both of them to be crucial to my success—especially “don’t take no for an answer.” This may not have to do with my being a woman, but if you come up with an idea somehow the tendency is that people want to turn down the idea. They say either, “We tried it and it didn’t lead anywhere,” or, “It’s not going to work.” Don’t stop. Don’t. Just keep pushing. Not all ideas are good, but don’t stop at the first "no." To be determined and to persevere is very important.