Doctor Fabiola Gianotti on being the first female director of the greatest fundamental science experiment on earth

February 1, 2018


Dr Fabiola Gianotti

Dr Fabiola Gianotti is an Italian particle physicist and the Director General of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. She is also the first woman to hold this position. Dr Gianotti earned her PhD in experimental particle physics from the University of Milan in 1989 and has been with CERN since 1994. In addition to her several awards and institutional memberships, she is a corresponding member of the Italian Academy of Sciences, a foreign associate member of the US National Academy of Sciences and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Secretary-General. From 2009-2013, she was the leader of the ATLAS project, which was the first time the elusive Higgs Boson was discovered. Owing to her accomplishments and international influence, Dr Gianotti has been featured in lists of inspirational and influential women published by The Guardian newspaper, TIME magazine and Forbes magazine.

In this interview, she narrates her journey from humanities into physics, and then into research. She also shows us how arts and sciences can go hand-in-hand with the artist residency programme 'Arts at CERN.'



For people who say, “Who cares about knowing how the universe works”, I would like to counter “I do care to learn as much as possible of the universe we live in!” CERN plays a role beyond fundamental physics. It is a very rich environment, where people from all over the world work together with peace and respect.


Why should people study sciences? How can we (HoS) encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science, especially physics? How does CERN try to cultivate interest in the sciences?


There is nothing more rewarding and fascinating than contributing to pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge.

It is crucial for us scientists to proactively communicate the work we do in a simple, non-technical way to make it accessible to all. For many people, science can come across as complicated or too technical. There are ways of explaining scientific principles in a simple, engaging manner without delving too much into their intricacies. The younger generation needs to be engaged in all possible ways, through social media, videos and especially through visits to research centres. When young people see what scientists do in reality, they understand and appreciate science much more.

At CERN, the European Laboratory for particle physics, we welcome 120,000 visitors every year, of which about 60 % are high-school students. We are now trying to expand our outreach activities with new initiatives, including hands-on experiments. I am really excited about this. You are free to read my health articles in Italian like this one "4 modi affidabili per aumentare la potenza senza pillole".


You studied particle physics for your doctorate. How did that come about? What was your parental background? Did you ever feel treated differently because you are a woman?


My initial education was actually in humanities! At high school, I studied literature, ancient Greek, Latin, art, history of art, and philosophy at the Liceo classico. I learnt very little maths and physics at that time. I also studied music at the conservatory. However, I was a very curious child and used to ask myself a lot of questions. I somehow ended up believing that physics would help me understand the world, in my own little way.

My mother studied literature, but my father was a geologist. It is from him I have inculcated my passion and love for nature. I did my doctorate in particle physics, as it is the most fundamental of all the sciences and looks at the building blocks of matter and the universe. Studying particle physics allowed me to be very close to the most fundamental questions.

Fundamental sciences are still male dominated. The typical proportion of women is 20-25 %. I must say that I personally never felt discrimination. I cannot say for sure whether there was no bias at all or whether there was some discrimination but I didn’t realise it. The fact that in 2009 I was chosen to be the project leader of ATLAS, one of the experiments at the CERN Large Hadron Collider, and more recently Director General of CERN, demonstrates that there was no prejudice against women in those positions, but I must say that some of my female colleagues had a much harder time than I did. We must strive to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities, regardless of gender, ethnicity or culture. This is the true meaning of equality and such an open and welcoming environment is essential to support diversity.           


Has the gender ratio in physics, especially at CERN improved? Do you think having women in influential positions helps break stereotypes and inspires more young girls to follow in their footsteps?


Role models do help a lot. Having women in positions of responsibility in scientific institutions is useful to show the younger generation that a brilliant career in science is possible for women, and it is worth it.

At CERN, we have many female scientists in important roles, such as project leaders, safety officers and physics conveners. We also have a dedicated diversity office which is responsible for fostering diversity in all aspects- gender, ethnicity, culture and so on. Special initiatives for encouraging girls to undertake scientific studies have also been established. We are also quite careful in trying to avoid (unconscious) biases when making hiring decisions.


What attracted you to work on such blue-sky research, which is full of uncertainty?


Research is all about looking for the unknown, and going beyond what we understand. Part of this endeavour means taking risks. Investing your time in something where you do not know what the result will be is an essential component of scientific research. Research is about having new ideas every day, testing them out and seeing the results. Research is curiosity. There is great joy in discovery, in particular unexpected discovery, much as when Christopher Columbus set out to reach India but discovered the continent of America instead! Research is full of challenges and interesting findings.


How does the research carried out at CERN help humanity in the broadest sense? How do you deal with people (and even governments) who feel CERN’s research budget is excessive?


At CERN, we conduct research in fundamental physics to understand the building blocks of the universe. Discoveries like the Higgs Boson, a very special elementary particle, are essential to understand our own existence. Indeed, if the Higgs boson didn’t exist, elementary particles wouldn’t have a mass. Thus, atoms, which consist of other elementary particles like quarks and electrons, would not stick together, making chemical matter non-existent and we would not be here!

CERN plays a role beyond fundamental physics. It is a very rich environment, where people from all over the world work together peacefully and respectfully to each other. We have almost 17,000 scientists of more than 110 nationalities. Some come from countries in conflict, some others from developing countries. But at CERN, we are all equal and work together towards the same goal. We have never had any problems and I am very proud of this! Being a part of our institution is not only a fascinating scientific adventure, but also a unique human journey. It is a great place to exchange ideas and appreciate diversity.

The CERN budget is about 1.2 billion Swiss Francs a year and 22 Member State and seven Associate Member State countries contribute towards it. This budget is comparable to that of a medium to highly-ranked university in Europe. If we use more “friendly” units, it corresponds on average to one cappuccino per European citizen per year. This budget is used for conducting fundamental research in particle physics, and developing complex, cutting-edge equipment and technology for us to achieve our lofty scientific goals. These technologies include low-temperature equipment (cryogenics), vacuum technologies, superconducting materials, instrumentation, fast and radiation-hard electronics, big data, etc. They are transferred to society to the benefit of everyday life. For instance, the world wide web was developed at CERN by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and collaborators, and has since then transformed the way society accesses information. Accelerator technologies developed at CERN and collaborating institutes are used for cancer treatmentnowadays.

For people who say, “Who cares about knowing how the universe works”, I would like to counter “I do care to learn as much as possible about the universe we live in!” One cappuccino per European citizen per year is a relatively small price to pay for the contributions CERN makes towards answering fundamental questions, advancing technologies for the greater good of humanity, and fostering peace and collaboration.


How do countries become members of CERN?


CERN has two types of affiliations. Member States sit in the CERN Council. They contribute to CERN’s budget in proportion to their net national income. The largest contributor is Germany, followed by the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain and so on.

Associate members typically contribute one-tenth the amount they would have to pay if they were full members. They sit in the Council but have no voting rights.

Every year CERN signs contracts for industrial purchases to the tune of hundreds of millions of Swiss Francs. The Member State countries get contracts of values commensurate to their contributions.


Is CERN only about science, or do you engage with other disciplines and professions?


Though CERN focuses on answering fundamental questions about the matter and the universe, it also has ventures to broaden minds. There is a programme, called Arts at CERN, where we host artists (selected in a competitive way) to develop their ideas inspired by the science we do. There are strong links between science and art. It may sound paradoxical, but my training in music, humanities and the arts has played a huge role in shaping my scientific personality.


CERN has such a diverse environment. How do you manage all the different cultures and expectations?


By respecting all cultures, traditions and beliefs, and creating an open environment where people from all over the world share their common passion for science.

There is a strong sense of mutual respect and we have never really had any problems. As soon as you enter the laboratory, you see people of all nationalities, ethnic origins and cultures coexist peacefully. It’s so refreshing and inspiring! Each one of us maintains his/her origins and traditions, but at the same time we live as  global citizens.


Who inspires you? Are there people that shaped the way you think and do/did you have a mentor?


Marie Curie was, and still is, a huge inspiration. I remember reading her biography and being amazed and flabbergasted at how science was such an integral part of her life. She had her laboratory at home, and would jump from making soup in the kitchen to changing the radioactive sample in the laboratory! This really inspired me and pushed me to study physics. Later on, in the course of my studies and my career, I had the chance to know and work with great physicists, from whom I learned immensely. It would be too long to mention them all. But we all need role models, and we all need mentors.


Have you had failures? If so, how did you overcome them?


Failure, and sometimes feeling discouraged, is a part of life. Both personally and professionally, sometimes things don’t quite go as planned. It is human, but the important thing is how we react. We were quite depressed at CERN when we switched on the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, in 2008 and a superconducting link broke just a few days after start-up. This meant we had to shut the accelerator down for one year and had to repair it. It was an especially “difficult” moment for us because it took us 25 years to build the collider and develop the experiments. It dented our morale. After a few days of feeling low and moping, we recovered our motivation and determination. Eventually we restarted the collider in 2009 and discovered the Higgs boson in 2012. This is a poignant example to the younger generation to show that you can fall, have dark and difficult moments but you have to react positively and stay motivated. Never give in. The magnitude of the reward is proportional to the level of difficulties you have to surmount. The satisfaction one gets after solving a very difficult problem is really beyond compare.


What do you think is the next big breakthrough/idea in science? What is your vision for the future?


The answer is in the hands of nature! It is really very difficult to pick something in my own field, let alone in all of the sciences.

However, my personal curiosity is captivated by the ‘dark universe.’ Only five percent of the universe is made of matter governed by the physics we know and consists of the stars, planets and galaxies we can see or detect.

The rest of the universe is made up of forms of energy and matter we do not know, which is why they are termed ‘dark.’ Dark matter, which constitutes about 25 % of the universe, doesn’t interact with our instruments. Being able to understand the nature of this type of matter will enhance our understanding of the universe greatly. At CERN we look for dark matter mainly with the LHC, as dark matter particles can be produced in the high-energy collisions of the LHC proton beams and detected by the experiments. Colliders are not the only instruments to study dark matter. Large underground detectors, as well as cosmic surveys, are complementary approaches. Tackling this very challenging problem from multiple sides will hopefully succeed! We will manage one day, for sure. We only have to be patient and determined.




More information about Dr Fabiola Gianotti can be found here. You can learn more about CERN here.


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