Photo credit: Ola Saether
The person and the path: Tell us about your personal and professional path to get where you are.
My name is Ann-Cecilie Larsen, 37 years old, and I am a research associate in nuclear astrophysics at the Department of Physics, University of Oslo, Norway. I am married and have two kids, six and eight years old. Currently I am holding a Starting Grant from the European Research Council funding my research project, which deals with how the heavy elements we find in our solar system have been and are created in extreme astrophysical environments. Simply said, my project team and I are researching how nuclei behave at the same temperatures they will encounter inside stars, exploding stars, and neutron stars that collide, and then we and our international collaborators make use of that knowledge to help improve simulations of how elements heavier than iron are being “cooked” out there, somewhere, in space.
I was born in Fredrikstad, Norway. I grew up close to the sea and love being at the sea, especially at summer time. I have and have had many more or less crazy hobbies and interests, such as horse riding, show-jumping for rabbits (the rabbits did the jumping!), reading lots of classic literature such as Shakespeare’s plays in addition to science fiction, and watching super-hero series and movies and all kinds of science-fiction films. My all-time favorite is Star Wars (the old movies!). I also love listening to music, in particular alternative rock and Finnish black metal – Muse and Amorphis are two bands I am listening to all the time.
I was very interested in natural science already as a kid, especially everything about our solar system, our galaxy and the universe. I ended up studying physics at the Department of Physics, University of Oslo because we had an excellent and inspiring physics teacher at high school, even though I actually got better grades in new-Norwegian (the second official Norwegian language) and religion history, of all things. The more I studied, the more interesting and fun physics turned out to be.
I chose experimental nuclear physics as the topic for my Master thesis, and have never regretted that choice! At the department, there is a small but great nuclear-physics lab, the Oslo Cyclotron Laboratory. I was thrown right into it, taking many shifts during the experiment that provided the data for my thesis – we typically run 24/7 for many days to gather enough data, which is common for nuclear-physics experiments at labs all over the world. When my master thesis was handed in, I really wanted to learn more about nuclear physics and I continued my studies to pursue a PhD degree.
After defending my thesis, I got a postdoc position, but decided to apply for a personal postdoc grant from the Research Council of Norway. In this project, I focused my research into nuclear astrophysics, using our data to better estimate the nuclear reaction rates that are crucial to understand the element-abundance pattern we observe in the solar system. This project laid the foundation for the European Research Council grant that I am currently working on.
Inspiration: What inspired you to work in science?
The main reason I chose to work in science is the passion I have for nuclear astrophysics. It’s such a reward when we perform experiments that no one has done before and breaking new ground, making new discoveries and unraveling the secrets of atomic nuclei as we keep working with our experiments and theoretical understanding. Also I think it is so exciting to be part of the large nuclear astrophysics community, which addresses one of the most fundamental science questions: where do the elements come from and how were they made? I feel that this is an extremely exciting time for our field: we have unprecedented astronomical observations, a huge development in new nuclear-physics measurement techniques and instrumentation as well as theory, an enormous improvement of computational power and simulation and upcoming new experimental facilities such as FRIB in the US and FAIR in Germany. I am also very optimistic seeing all the young and bright new students that are attracted to the field of nuclear astrophysics – with all this brainpower it’s gonna be some awesome science done!
Love: What do you love about your field?
Well I guess I have said a lot already that explains why – in addition, I find it very stimulating to work in an interdisciplinary field, which connects the quantum world with the evolution of gigantic stars and galaxies. Also, I have so many nice, clever and encouraging colleagues both at my home institution and abroad. They are a great source of inspiration and I really enjoy working with them, discussing data analysis, theory and models, and getting new ideas for future experiments and projects.
Role models (real or imaginary) and mentors!
In terms of role models, Princess Leia comes pretty high up on the list – I love that she is tough, smart and sharp-witted, and seems totally unaffected being a female leader in a man-dominated environment. As for persons in the real world, Maria Goeppert-Mayer and Vera Rubin are two female scientists I greatly admire.
What are some difficulties you faced as a woman in science and what coping mechanisms worked for you?
Although being a female scientist in a field dominated by men, I can’t say I have ever been seriously bothered by it. Thinking of it, I can’t think of any specific situation or episode where I have felt that I have been treated differently just because I am a woman and not a man. Of course, I have been to many conferences, workshops, and experiments abroad where there were very few female participants, or I might even have been the only one. However, at least so far, I can’t say I have noticed any explicit inappropriate behavior or judgmental attitudes.
Of course, I do feel a great pressure on my time, being a mother and doing my best to take good care of my kids, following up their homework and activities as well as I can. I ended up writing a paper during my first maternity leave – but that would have been impossible during the second leave – kids are different for sure! Sometimes it can be really hard just handling all the practical stuff that comes with having kids. This can sometimes be difficult, since being a scientist, at least in my field, often means long days of work and working in the weekends on a regular basis. Also there is a lot of traveling abroad. Sometimes I have been able to bring the kids with me for the longer stays abroad, for example during my Fulbright scholarship. But quite often this is not possible, and it’s a lot of extra logistics and administration that need to be handled. So that can be quite challenging.
Some periods are of course extremely busy, with all kinds of deadlines, experiments, travels, and so on, and sometimes I ask myself why I chose this career and not something less demanding and with 8AM-4PM Monday-Friday work hours! But then again, we get some new cool results, I hear a great talk at a conference, or someone gets a new great idea during a discussion or a meeting – and these “light bulb” moments make it all worth it!
Space-Time: How did your experiences and reactions evolve as you became more mature?
Through the years I have become more confident in myself. I often felt I was not good enough or that I knew too little during the first years at the university. Gradually I built more confidence as I went through the courses and realized that I actually managed my studies and understood quite a bit! On the other hand, I still get the feeling that the more I learn, the less I know, somehow! Physics is such a huge and diverse field, and there are so many interesting subjects I wish I could study in much more detail. Also, I think I have become much better in saying no to requests that are draining time and energy unnecessarily. Before I felt so bad when I had to say no to things, now I am at least coming over my bad conscience much quicker. I guess I have learned to focus and to spend my time more efficiently – a necessity when having kids!
Advise for young women who want to succeed in the sciences?
If you want to pursue a career in science, I think it’s very important that you really enjoy working with scientific questions, that you are not afraid of challenges, and that you have a determination and persistence to push through even though the work can be very tough and demanding sometimes. Also, being able to seek advice and guidance from experienced researchers is a great strength. At least in experimental nuclear astrophysics a big portion of the work is done in teams, so being a good team worker is definitely an advantage.
How can we find out more about you (website, social media, blog,…)?
I am trying to be more active on social media, you can follow me on Twitter: @Cec_gRESONANT
My website is https://www.mn.uio.no/fysikk/english/people/aca/anncecil/index.html
and the ERC project is shortly described at http://www.mn.uio.no/fysikk/english/research/projects/gresonant/index.html