XFEL: From Girls' Day to Physics Degree

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2020/03/26
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From Girls' Day to Physics Degree

University student Emilia Bertonasco talks about how her participation in Girls' Day influenced her decision to study physics.

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Interested in maths and physics from an early age, Emilia Bertonasco took part in the Girls' Day at European XFEL. She enjoyed it so much she returned the following year to do a three week school practical at the facility. She is now studying Physics at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
Since girls day 2020 has been cancelled, we wanted to share a story about a previous event. Interested in maths and physics from an early age, Emilia Bertonasco was encouraged by her father to take part in the Girls’ Day at European XFEL. She enjoyed it so much she returned the following year to do a three week school practical at the facility. Via a chance encounter several years later, we learnt that Emilia is now studying Physics at the Humboldt University in Berlin and invited her to visit us again. Here she talks about her experience at European XFEL all those years ago and how that influenced her decision to study physics.

Welcome back to European XFEL! What’s it like to be here again?

Really cool! As part of the three week school practical I did here when I was in 9th grade in 2014, we visited the building site and went down into the hall and tunnel. Back then it was just a lot of concrete. It’s great to come back and see everything finished and equipped.

Your first contact with European XFEL was a year earlier, however, when you took part in the Girls' Day while you were in 8th grade. How did that come about?

My dad suggested it might be something for me after seeing the event advertised on the Girls' Day webpage. I actually thought I’d decided to study physics later than that, but I recently found a diary I kept during the 7th grade and saw that I’d written then ‘I want to study physics’! Already in the 7th grade I enjoyed maths and physics and chemistry. I guess that’s why my Dad suggested I visit European XFEL.

Do you remember what you did on that day?

Not in detail, it’s too long ago! But I remember we went down into the HERA tunnel at DESY and talked to European XFEL scientists. It must have enjoyed it; otherwise I wouldn’t have decided to do the practical the following year.

What impression did you have of European XFEL?

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Valerio Cerantola shows Emilia Bertonasco around the experimental hutch High Energy Density.
Of course the physics and the science people were working on fascinated me. I like physics so that was interesting to see and talk about that. But I also really liked the working atmosphere – that so many people from different countries were working together, and everyone was so friendly and nice to each other. Everyone seemed relaxed and easy going! Some scientists explained that they often travel to, for example, California to do experiments which I thought was cool too.

Do you think the experience influenced your decision to study physics at University?

Oh yes. Of course I can’t say whether I would still be studying physics if I hadn’t done that practical – you never can tell – but the experience definitely made me feel that yes, I really want to do this, and confirmed my decision to pursue physics at university.

What kind of feedback have you had from others when they hear you study physics?

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Thomas Baumann shows Emilia Bertonasco the experimental hutch Small Quantum Systems.
My family is really supportive – they support me in whatever I want to do, even if they do find it amusing that I am studying something completely different to them! Both my Dad and Mum have more creative professions, and I didn’t have any role models in that sense growing up. Generally I think people are impressed if you say you study physics. People often answer that they stopped studying it in school as soon as possible, and they know nothing about physics. When I, as a young woman, say I am studying physics people are generally surprised. They often think they have heard ‘music’ instead of ‘physics’*, or ask if I am studying to be a physics teacher since that might seem more acceptable for a woman. I’ve spoken to male friends before about this, and they have never had the experience that people are surprised they study physics.
(* ‘Musik’ and ‘Physik’ sound similar in German).

What plans do you have for the future?

I think it’s too early to tell. I’m only in my second year at the Humboldt University in Berlin so there is still so much more to see and learn. I can’t tell what subject or type of work I’m interested in yet. But I could very much imagine one day working somewhere such as DESY or European XFEL!