Career Q&A: Lia Merminga

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.

“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.” —Lia Merminga

“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.

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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?

Working for a Contract Research Organization

Doing Science While Female