Kumiko Kotera: doing beautiful physics without giving up on family, art and the rest of the world

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Kumiko Kotera is a young researcher in Astrophysics, at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, (IAP) of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). She builds theoretical models to probe the most violent phenomena in the Universe, by deciphering their so-called “astroparticle” messengers (cosmic rays, neutrinos and photons). Today, she is one of the leaders of the international project GRAND (Giant Radio Array for Neutrino Detection), that aims at detecting very-high energy cosmic neutrinos. In 2016, she received a prestigious award: the CNRS bronze medal for her important achievements.

Kumiko Kotera
Kumiko Kotera

Below is a short interview of Kumiko Kotera [KK] by Lucia Di Ciaccio [LDC], Chairperson of the Equal Opportunity Committee of EPS.

LDC. Why did you choose to study physics?

KK. When I was in middle school, I aspired to a job that would sound poetic and sensible at the same time. Astrophysics seemed to match that definition, so I decided that I would become an Astrophysicist. Now that I have become one, I am not certain about the poesy nor the appropriateness of this job, but it fulfils my desire to be constantly solving puzzles, learning, doubting and sometimes finding solutions.

LDC.  Any worry to match your family life and a career in physics?

KK. I would certainly not be able to do this alone. I am extremely fortunate to be with someone who is highly committed to child care and housework, and who fully supports me: nevertheless it is an every-day challenge to find a good balance and feel satisfied about one’s achievements on both sides.

LDC.  What has been the personally most rewarding experience and also the biggest difficulty encountered so far in your career?

KK. Acting at the core of a big project at the very early stage, being able to orient the design of an instrument according to my theorist’s dreams is one of my most vibrant experiences up to now. 

More precisely, I have been putting a lot of efforts on a huge experimental project. It is exciting to see the project develop and gain momentum, prototypes being deployed, and the team accreting great scientists.

Concerning the difficulties: I have had a hard time working in some male-dominated places, where competition had turned into an aggressive behaviour, or where I felt that I was out of place as a woman.

LDC. Did you encounter any difficulty in finding funding for PhD or a post-doc position related to the fact that you are a woman?

KK. No, not that I know of, luckily, even though I did have several annoying encounters. Once I was asked by a (young!) fellow physicist: “So, when are you going to quit? I guess you want to have a family some day?”

LDC. Any suggestion to guarantee a balanced gender representation in physics?

KK. I believe that giving permanent jobs to young researchers earlier in their career would help getting closer to parity. In some cases, female researchers quit physics around 30, if they cannot get a stable position – which I fully understand. By hiring researchers at an earlier stage in their career we give higher chances to female researchers to remain in physics.

LDC. Any particular advice for a young aspiring researcher?

KK. It is okay to doubt. We all have ups and downs in research, and these fluctuations build our strength and seed our creativity.

LDC. Do you have any female ‘physicist cult figure’ or ‘role model’?

KK. Angela Olinto, professor at the University of Chicago, is undoubtedly my mentor. She struggled to build her brilliant career at a time when female physicists were far more isolated than today and opened the path for all of us. She showed me how one can be strong, respected, and do beautiful physics without ever giving up on kindness, family, art, and the rest of the world.

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