by Iva Raynova. Published: 10 November 2015

or How crossing one road may determine your life

Alessandra Fantoni is a physicist at the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Frascati, Italy, where she first started in 1990 as a postgraduate student working on her Master’s thesis. That was on a nuclear physics experiment at the ADONE storage ring, a collider for electrons and positrons, 105 metres long and working at 1.5 GeV with the aim of exploring the new energy range in subnuclear physics, opened by the possibility of observing electron-positron interactions with center of mass at rest. Later on, in 1996, she won a permanent position at the Laboratori Nazionali di Frascati of INFN.

During her PhD study Alessandra was a part of the HERMES experiment, located at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, Germany. Its principal goal was to investigate the spin structure of the nucleon by polarized deep inelastic positron-proton scattering. She started her PhD when the experiment was just approved and she was fully involved on the construction of the Lead Glass Calorimeter since the early phase, being the responsible for many years. She was the last run coordinator and deputy spokesperson during the end of the experiment’s second run, completed in 2007.

Alessandra has been a part of the ALICE Collaboration since 2008, when LNF joined the collaboration between Italy, France and the USA, which created the large acceptance Electromagnetic Calorimeter (EMCal) in the ALICE central detector. Alessandra was the coordinator of the construction and assembly for the European part of the EMCal collaboration and later also for the Euroasian part of DCAL, an upgrade of the EMCAL, becoming also a deputy project leader of both calorimeters. Presently she is coordinating the nuclear physics activity in the Frascati laboratory at INFN.

What brought Alessandra in the world of particle physics in the first place was the simple act of crossing one road. She always knew she wanted to study something related to science, even though she couldn’t decide which field would be the most interesting for her. At the end of her high school education, her sister invited her for a visit in the chemistry laboratory she used to work in at that time. “I liked what I saw there – she remembers – but as soon as I walked out, I entered INFN, which is just on the opposite side of the street, I met a few people there, we talked for a while and I immediately decided that I wanted to do physics.

About the experience of being a period run coordinator, Alessandra shares with me that it is a very challenging task. During the night before our meeting, she had spent most of the time in the ALICE Run Control Centre to follow the start of data taking; also trying to understand and fix some problems to the best of her ability and, most importantly, without having to wake up her colleagues in the middle of the night. Something unavoidable, as it turns out to be, especially when the safety of the detector is at stake. “It is a real devotion. Sometimes you realize that you are doing this just because you really love it. I enjoy it, but I need to put big effort in it.” What she loves the most in being period run coordinator is the chance to communicate with a lot of people and the possibility to pass on her knowledge.

Aside from being a successful physicist (Alessandra was offered a permanent position at INFN before she was 30 and she was promoted before she turned 40), she also manages to be a full-time wife and mother. The balance between these two different lives she finds by spending every single free moment she has with her family. What she loves the most is travelling with her husband and daughter, no matter the destination: “It could be a new place or some place where we have already been, but deeply enjoyed. The seaside, small villages near Rome or in Tuscany, going to ski, snorkeling or scuba-diving… Being a physicist still means being a normal person with normal life, interests and hobbies”.

Something else Alessandra really enjoys doing is to visit children in primary and high schools in Frascati and to explain to them what it is like to be a physicist. And apparently she has a lot of impact over their young minds, since a man with white hair and wearing a lab coat seems to be the way children believe that a physicist should look like. “After they realize that the image they have is incorrect, they start asking if this is something they could actually do – Alessandra says – So I think that what I do is very important, because this way I show children that science isn’t something they should be afraid of.”