Who are you and what do you do?
Oh, wow! Emma, these are some difficult questions to answer right from the start! Ok, let’s do this…
My name is Milena and I am a storyteller. Well, at least that is how I always saw myself. My stories change and evolve and recently they happen to be a lot about physics. Antimatter physics in particular.
I identify with terms nerd and cat lady. My favourite number is 137 and favourite function is exponential (mine is modulus!). Why I find this important to share? I have no idea.
(I think given your area of expertise this is a cool idea to share! My husband’s is 7 and mine is 3).
Probably the hardest question I can get is where I come from. I have lived in six countries so far and my family moved a lot. The first and only place I have felt at home was at CERN. It is also the place where I started seeing myself as a scientist for the first time.
At CERN I used to work at AEgIS experiment as the positron (anti electron) expert. Among other things, my job was creating exotic atoms (made from electron and its antiparticle called positron) that do not exist on Earth!
I also created a CERN related blog, “Tau Bytes“, with the main goal to help other students apply for different opportunities offered by CERN. Through the interviews in other sections of the blog, I try to showcase different careers outside of the academia and inspire people with stories of amazing scientists that do more than just incredible research.
Currently, I am based in Liverpool where I am Marie Curie fellow and PhD student, collaborating with CERN. I really enjoy UK. The most British thing about me is my (slightly crazy) love for tea and the least British thing about me is that I absolutely love weather and rain they have here. It’s like the cosiest country ever…
(I understand your love for tea, there is not a lot that cannot be solved by a good ol’ British cuppa: the love of the weather not so much. Though I would agree that it is a “cosy country”!)
Where did it all start?
When I was sixteen I read a news article that said “by increasing the energy of the proton you can increase its mass”. I thought that was the biggest lie I have ever read and it upset me so much. It simply did not make any sense whatsoever. So I decided to prove that newspapers lied. It turned out that I was trying to prove that the most famous physics equation (E=mc^2), was wrong. Somewhere in the search for the right answer, I fell in love with physics and CERN.
Give us a snapshot of your day to day work?
This changes each day and you don’t really have a routine at work as a physicist. At least not when you are physicist that does really hands-on work on experiments because you never know which part of the experiment will betray you that day and magically stop working.
Is there someone that encouraged you to do this?
Actually, quite the opposite. I have had no support from anyone throughout my whole science journey, except for one person. Along the way, he became very good friend of mine. We sat together in our physics class during my final year of high school. I told him about my doubts and that I had no support to study physics, not even from my family. He said “I think you should do it. They don’t know what they are talking about, thinking you can’t do it. Of course you can! I am sure you will be great at it. I bet you will even work at CERN one day”. I told him he was crazy because I knew I could never work at CERN. I actually keep telling him he is crazy to think I can do each new thing I try and he keeps telling me “I told you so.”
What motivates you/what do you find motivating?
Unanswered questions and new challenges. I get a lot of ideas and I enjoy turning them into reality. If I know what I am doing, or will do, is going to help somebody or contribute to growth in knowledge/experience/life quality/happiness of others, I can’t help but feel motivated.
What advice do you have for people pursuing/aspiring to your career?
- Try, try and try. You will not always succeed at first and that is ok. Just try again. If you try enough times you will, without a doubt, succeed.
- Do not be afraid to admit that you do not know something – admitting this will take you far. Don’t judge someone that doesn’t know something you’ve already had a chance to learn. Instead, help them.
- Keep asking questions. Always.
- If things break, that is great! That is how you learn, so don’t stress about it.
- Physics is fun, so have fun doing it!
If you could go back in time, what is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself? (hindsight is a wonderful thing!)
It wouldn’t be a piece of advice. I would say “Keep doing what you are doing. Do not listen to them. Everything will turn out to be more than fine.”
Can your work be stressful? What do you do to manage stress? Do you have any helpful day to day practices?
At the time when the whole collaboration was under pressure to get results, I was put in charge of one of the main systems at the experiment. Positron system is very complicated, issues would happen on daily basis and even though my supervisor was always available on the phone and via emails … well, I didn’t handle it well.
I started having panic attacks because I thought I was not good enough and I was terrified of causing a major problem. I was sure that they made a mistake and if the experiment fails it would be because of me.
Then a senior person at the experiment spoke to me and said that instead of feeling bad, I should be proud of the opportunity I had been given because I was one of few people who was able to do this job. He said that if they didn’t think I can handle the pressure and work, they would never have given me this responsibility. Also he said “if things break, that is great! That is how you learn. Really, don’t stress about it.” So now whenever there is a stressful situation or I think I am not good enough, I just remember what he said and repeat to myself that if I wasn’t able to handle the work I would have never been offered the job in the first place.
What is your favourite thing about your job? What excites you most?
My favourite thing is also the hardest thing about my job – physicists create knowledge.
It’s amazing and exciting to work on something that nobody else has worked on before, but that also means when things are hard and you are stuck often you can’t just search the internet, open a book or look for a paper on the topic because at that very moment you are the one creating the answer for others to Google it!
It is the most frustrating thing about the job, but when you find the answer… Oh, it’s the best feeling ever!
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I love reading books, writing and being a slave to my wonderful fluffy kitten (see below for a photo). Travelling and learning new skills/things are also ways I can relax.
What’s your favourite color?
I like all the colors except some shades of yellow.
What is your favourite film just now and why?
Can I instead answer for the favourite book? 😀 (of course) It’s Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, it’s been my favourite book for the last ten years (pretty much since I first read it.)
I am not very movie educated (← one of the things I will work on in the future). But some of my favourite movies are: Schindler’s list, The Man from Earth and one Serbian movie, Sesir profesora Koste Vujica.
If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be and why? (from any time period!)
First person that came to my mind is my grandma. I know it’s probably not the most impressive answer, it’s just that since I moved away I haven’t had a chance to visit her (it’s quite expensive and difficult to get there) and we have no way of communicating. She is very important person in my life and I would like to be her for one day. I would be able to see what her day looks like, how she is doing and I would definitely pick her brain to get as much of her wisdom as I can.
Also, I would like her to be me for one day. She always dreamt of going to school: her family took her out of school age 10 so that she could help around the house. She was a very good student, loved studying and was very ambitious, unlike her brother who hated school and was not a good student: he was allowed to stay on to study. It’s her biggest regret and something she never forgave her parents for. She still reads Tolstoy and enjoys learning, but I would love to give her a chance to be me for a day and go to school or do some cool research. I am sure she would love that!
Is there anything else you would like us to know?
Hahaha… First thing that came to my mind was: armadillos get an average of 18.5 hours of sleep per day. So random and have no idea why it came to my mind, but I will leave it on that.
Thanks Milena! I honestly had no idea they get that much sleep, I am incredibly jealous! Maybe I was an armadillo in another life …