The joy of being a physicist

When talking about her life as a physics scientist, Marcia Barbosa cannot hide her pleasure and joy. These notions have been at the core of her successful career, and among other reasons are why she has been made a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate for 2013.

DiscovHER - What is unique about the Physical Sciences as a field of study? What led you to specialize in this area?

Marcia Barbosa - In physics we explore the fundamental mechanisms of how things work in nature. The use of fundamental laws makes physics quite an elegant topic.

D/H - Could you describe a scientific wonder that moved you or touched you in childhood or in adolescence?

MB - When I was working at the school lab, I was very confused with the idea that light could be a wave and a particle. In order to check the wave nature I did build a Newton disc. The isolated colors combine and form the white light. Then to detect the particle nature of the light, I built a blower in which one side was black and the other was bright. This blower was built inside a vacuum chamber and it would move due to the phonon being reflected or absorbed by the blower. Understanding the duality was a pleasure. I decided I wantde to live a life full of this type of pleasure.

D/H - Could you describe a time when the solution to a problem you had been working on for a long time suddenly became clear?

MB - Some years ago we were measuring the increase of the diffusion coefficient of water with the increase of pressure by computer simulations. We observed that particles that diffused faster also rotated faster. I was puzzled. Other liquids under increase of pressure would slow down but our model for water would speed up. After long discussions with my collaborators we could see that water was performing a dance. When particles would be very close due to compression, they would move from one hydrogen bond to another combining a translational with a rotation move like a group ballroom dance.

D/H - Even though your career has had many delightful experiences, what were the biggest challenges you have faced?

MB - The biggest challenge I faced was creating my own research group and getting it recognized inside and outside of Brazil. The solution was to aggressively look for students and travel a lot. In order to be known I had to make international collaborations, go to a large number of conferences and participate in the organization of meetings. I might confess that doing this was a lot of fun too.

D/H - Has anyone in your life inspired you to greater achievement, such as as a role model or mentor?

MB - I do have a number of mentors. First, Michael Fisher, my postdoc advisor, for his clarity and ability to persuade people, Ben Widom, his closest friend, with for his precision and soft way to explain principles, Anneke Sengers, a careful but very persistent experimentalist and H. E. Stanley, a very creative researcher. They taught me that research is done by a smiling face with an iron hand in a soft glove.

This award represents the recognition of the work of my students and collaborators. They are a fundamental part of my life. In addition, this prize is a present for my parents, brother and life companion that always believed and supported my work.

More about Professor Marcia Barbosa:

For Women in Science

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