Sophia Chen: An answer a century later

How do you measure energy loss mechanisms of energetic ions propagating in dense matter? This was the question asked by the Danish scientist Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1913. A century later, Dr Sophia Chen, born in the USA, answered this question by developing a spectral ion selection technique to specifically measure their deceleration. She shares her passions, hopes and ideas about science with us.

Why did you choose France to continue your research?

The title of a recent article in the newspaper Le Figaro (Jan 2015) says it all: “Apollon, le laser le plus puissant au monde.” If you’re into lasers, France is the place to be. In the coming decade, in Europe alone, we will be home at least five new high-intensity high-power laser facilities; such as Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) in the Czech Republic, Romania, and Hungary; that will even top the specifications of Apollon.

I use high power short pulse lasers to create and study extreme forms of matter and there are only a handful of high-power laser facilities in the world. Fortunately, the high power laser community is still relatively small, so through collaborations I have been able to work at most of the facilities that exist – and France houses several of them. These types of lasers are becoming very popular as laboratory tools and installations are being built all over the world now. Extremely short pulsed lasers (pulses of less than a picosecond) have only been in existence the past 15 years, but have now made significant inroads to many fields of experimental physics, biology and chemistry, mainly because we can now study very quickly evolving processes that we could not have before. And because of the overlap of research topics from different fields of study, it is extremely exciting to work in interdisciplinary projects that bring, for example, particle physicists and cellular biologist together.

What reputation does scientific research in France have in the States? How is scientific research in France perceived in the U.S.?

This varies a lot depending on the field you work in. For example, with CERN, everybody in the US knows that the powerhouse of experimental particle physics lies within the EU. There are niches where France is recognized, in quantum physics for example, but still in the US there is the image that most of the research is performed within the US, just because of the sheer number of research institutes in the US.

In this particular area of physics that I work in, there are very strong collaborations between American and European groups. We have benefited from the fact that over the past several decades, many Europeans have emigrated and started research groups at US institutions (National Laboratories, Universities, etc.), so for students starting out, interacting with an international spread of colleagues from the beginning of their studies fosters ties that continues well into their future careers.

What are your passions aside from science?

Being raised within a family coming from Hong-Kong, my parents cooked only Chinese food, which is extremely varied; nothing is cooked the same way in every village. I discovered European-type of cooking when I went to university and I was fortunate to have a number of friends from Italy who always brought back cookies and cheese from their parent’s farm after the holidays to tickle the immediate senses. This may not sound like anything special, but for someone who grew up in California during a period where food was very industrialized, this was something not Asian or American, and thus very exotic. That was only the beginning.

Has this passion for culinary discovery transpired into your perspectives of science and of the world in general?

My interest toward European style food is also driven out of a larger interest for European culture: I grew up in California which has about 300 years of written history, which really meant no significant history at all. This meant classes in history consisted of mainly the 5000 years of Indo-European history, which for a 15 year old Chinese kid felt like reading a science-fiction novel. Needless to say, I had lacked a bit of perspective, but during my graduate studies, I had the opportunity to spend 8 months in England working at a laser facility near Oxford. Weekend trips in the country-side and London was where I was first able to give what I had learned in history class a time and place.

Since then, I began reconstructing the perspectives that I had of the world, stitching together cultures, religions, cuisines, language, and the rest that makes them all different and in likeness. This is evident in the letters and sciences as well. Indeed the idea inquiry into nature has started with the Greeks and the Europeans have developed it into what we know as modern science. I considered myself to be extremely fortunate to be able to now live and study, and to travel and learn why this place was and is still so particular of a place to have given the rest of the world the curiosity and methods to understand the world we live in and what lies beyond the cosmos. 

Dr Sophia Chen received a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship in 2014.

For Women in Science

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