Alumni Stories: Maria Żurek
“In my work it is difficult to separate my private and professional life. Constant trips, meetings, conferences, experiments, work until small hours and pressure. I love many aspects of what I do, but also sometimes it is very tiring for me. The problem of coping with stress, the balance between work and private life and mental health in general in academia is serious and should be talked about.(...)”
Name and surname: Maria Żurek
Place of residence: Berkeley, CA, USA
Position: Postdoctoral Researcher (Postdoc in nuclear and particle physics)
Degree subject: Experimental Physics
- What is your best memory of studying at the Jagiellonian University?
Oh! I have a lot of them! I have very good memories of my time in the Scientific Club (Jagiellonian University Students’ Mathematics and Natural Sciences Club), conferences, meetings, and scientific projects that we organized. I have so many wonderful memories of lectures with my favourite instructors and my first scientific research, and all the performances and films that I could watch with student discounts, and concerts during Spring Break parties, and walks around Cracow...
- How did your career start? What were the turning points?
In high school, I wanted to be a science teacher. I was fascinated by physics, mathematics, chemistry, but also ... Polish literature. I had a good physics teacher in high school, Wojciech Cyganik. I’m sure that he had a huge impact on what I am doing now.
While studying physics at the Jagiellonian University, I also attended a pedagogical college and obtained a teaching qualification. After my second year of studies, I went on an internship at the Fermilab National Laboratory in the USA and there I first encountered the world of elementary particles. I was charmed by this institution, my wonderful internship supervisor, professor Michael Albrow, the people who worked there, and the fact that students and scientists worked together hand in hand, analysing data from the most cutting-edge research in the world. My dreams of a career as a teacher turned into dreams of a career as a scientist.
On my career path, I have met many wonderful people who have been my mentors. I am very grateful to them for that. I would not be where I am now if it had not been for my supervisors, especially Dr. Aleksandra Wrońska, my BA thesis supervisor, Dr. Volker Hejny, my PhD dissertation supervisor, and Dr. Ernst Sichtermann, my current supervisor at Berkeley. I think that mentors are one of the most crucial aspects in the development of a researcher, especially at the beginning of their career.
- How has your education contributed your career development?
Thanks to studying physics at the Jagiellonian University, I had the opportunity to participate in experiments at the Scientific Centre in Juelich in Germany. This collaboration during my MA studies resulted in my doctorate, which I did as part of an excellent programme run by the Universities of Cologne and Bonn (Bonn-Cologne Graduate School). The studies allowed me to understand which field of physics is my most favourite and prepared me thoroughly for my doctorate. My pedagogical background is very useful in working with students and in all kinds of science promotion activities (e.g. science festivals and workshops for young people) that I love!
- Tell us about your current job. What are you doing now?
I work as a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the USA. My research is related to particle physics and nuclear physics. In physics, there is a division into scientists involved in experimental work (preparing experiments, analysing measurement data) and theoretical work (developing and elaborating physical theories). I am an experimentalist working in Cracow since college on various experiments all over the world, including Germany and the USA. I am currently analysing the data from the STAR experiment, which is being carried out at the National Laboratory in Brookhaven, USA. The purpose of my work is to learn about the matter that we are all made of at the most basic level, and more specifically to study the internal structure of the proton. In order to be able to “look” inside the proton and study the elementary particles, quarks and gluons there, we cannot use a magnifying glass or a microscope. We need huge devices (accelerators) that allow us to accelerate protons almost to the speed of light and collide them. By studying the remains of “broken” protons in large detectors, we are able to guess what their interior looks like. This kind of research, conducted by physicists through various experiments and with the help of our fellow theorists, enables us to study the matter from which we are made more and more closely and to understand better and better why our universe looks the way it looks.
Zdjęcie ze zbiorów własnych absolwentki.
- What are your biggest challenges right now?
The biggest challenge, perhaps for most postdocs, is the next step in their scientific career. Finding a more stable position in the scientific community is not easy. In addition, the current global situation related to the coronavirus pandemic means that many universities have significantly fewer job offers. This is definitely my biggest challenge in the near future.
Fighting stress is also a challenge in everyday life. In my work it is difficult to separate my private and professional life. Constant trips, meetings, conferences, experiments, work until small hours and pressure. I love many aspects of what I do, but also sometimes it is very tiring for me. The problem of coping with stress, the balance between work and private life and mental health in general in academia is serious and should be talked about. An example is one of the many studies on this subject published in Nature Biotechnology (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03803-3) which showed that about 40% of the students surveyed displayed symptoms of moderate to severe depression and about 40% experience moderate to severe anxiety (2,279 MSc and PhD students from 26 countries participated in the study).
- What is life and work like in the city/country where you live?
My day at work varies. When I deal with data analysis, I can most often be found in my office (now home) in front of my computer. At that time, I mainly do programming and discuss the results with my tutor at Berkeley and the STAR group that studies proton structure. We meet once a week, remotely, of course, not face to face. In our group, we have scientists from institutions all over the world, so we need to adjust the times, because we are in different time zones.
I attend various seminars several times a week. The Laboratory and the University of Berkeley are fascinating institutions. In the Laboratory itself, scientists discovered 16 elements, the world's first elementary particle accelerator (cyclotron) was constructed here, the Big Bang theory was confirmed, the phenomenon of photosynthesis was explained, it was figured out how dinosaurs died out and many, many, many more. The seminars held here are usually very inspiring!
When I am not involved in data analysis, I usually prepare presentations for conferences or write publications and reports. I spend several weeks a year on the STAR experiment in Brookhaven (near New York). It is an hectic time when we take measurements and make sure that the experiment works properly. Measurements are made continuously about 8 months a year and 24 hours a day, at least 5 people must supervise the experiment on site in Brookhaven.
An important part of my work is also presenting and discussing the results at conferences and workshops, taking care of students, writing grant applications for research projects or research trips, checking data analyses by other scientists from my experiment before publication. In my work, I also spend time learning about new experiments and taking part in building new measuring devices. Most of my time is definitely science, but I also enjoy being involved in schools and science festivals where I explain physics to others. I am also the president of a postdoctoral association.
Besides teaching physics and organizing postdoctoral projects, I like cooking and eating! In Berkeley, we have the opportunity to taste cuisines from around the world. And from Berkeley it’s 20 minutes by tube to San Francisco. There are even more culinary options out there! I love to cook, mostly vegetarian food, and California just so happens to have great local produce. There are also plenty of vineyards with great wines. This is life! I also like the cinema very much. There are 3 cinemas in Berkeley, a 15-minute walk from my apartment. And these are the cinemas I like, old, dark and with atmosphere. Berkeley is probably the coolest place I’ve ever lived and worked so far (second only to Cracow!).
Zdjęcie ze zbiorów własnych absolwentki.
- What is your definition of success?
Success is doing in my life what I am passionate about and expanding my knowledge about the world we live in together with creative and diverse people in a supportive environment.
- What advice/guidance do you have for current students who are just entering the labour market?
First, keep your head up! It will be fine! Prepare your CV thoroughly, tailor the achievements and experience that you emphasize in your documents to the job description you are applying for. Apply even if you think that you don’t meet all the criteria in the ad. Find out more about the company you apply to (learn about its philosophy, values and areas of activity). Make contact with people who do the work you dream about. Ask for an information interview with this person. And never stop expanding your knowledge and experience.
- How do you imagine the cooperation between the Jagiellonian University and its graduates?
I think that it is important to stay up-to-date and build a platform to allow for contact between graduates in Poland and abroad. Such a network of contacts would certainly be very helpful for students and graduates looking for a job in a specific field, moving to a given country, and would also allow organizing joint events (such as a mentoring program that happened this year) or joint research and business ventures.
Finally, I would like to add that if anyone reading this interview would like to learn more about scientific work in the field of physics, in particular nuclear and particle physics, check out your career opportunities in the USA or Germany, or if you’re interested the field of communication and science popularization, please go ahead and message me on LinkedIn.
Interview was conducted by Halina Czubała.