by Polly Bennett. Published: 11 November 2011

This issue ALICE Matters talks to our new secretary

The first time we met, Helena was being dragged around the port-a-cabin at the end of October’s Point 2 party. It was her first day and Carnita, one of our other tremendously helpful secretaries, was dutifully introducing her to everyone in the room. Helena seemed offended (although she later said only bemused) when I asked if she was French, “I am from Sweden! Does my accent really sound French? I don’t think it does.” I make excuses about being unable to hear properly with the party babble all around us. But it’s a testament to her French skills; she really does gabble like a native speaker.

Helena Zerlauth

ALICE secretary Helena Zerlauth

When we meet the next day there is a kerfuffle as I try to spell her family name. It is Austrian and I couldn’t spell it, but Helena is a very patient person. She is from Umeå (which also caused spelling problems due to the weird Swedish å) in the north of Sweden. This was where she began to study, but as she says, “why study in the town where you grew up and lived your entire life. No, it’ better to go somewhere else.” This prompted her move to Stockholm, a fateful decision that has directed the rest of her life so far. It was here, while studying Earth and Environmental sciences, that she met her husband. “He is Austrian but he was doing an exchange year in Stockholm. He did his PhD at CERN and was then offered a staff position. I moved here with him and we’ve been living in France since 2001.”

I ask Helena why she chose her degree subject, “I like environmental questions and issues and the idea that you can use technology to answer such questions.” She sighs, “But I’m not really the type to be out in the forest when it’s raining collecting soil samples. If you study these things in Sweden you’re out in the mountains miles away from anyone.” She goes on, “I’m still interested in environmental issues but I prefer my jobs being in the administrative side of things.” She tells me how she moved into admin roles since coming to France. “It was sort of by chance a little bit. I was a tourist guide in Stockholm while I studied. I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed working with people, so when I came to France and got the chance to work as an administrative assistant I found I really like it. I prefer it actually. I worked at the Permanent Mission of Sweden, and then of Norway.”

“I also worked for Microsoft. My team worked with research groups from different institutes to help them with problems such as how to handle large amounts of data and to generally make research more efficient. Most people think of revenue driven projects when hearing about Microsoft, but on my project we didn’t bring in any money, we spent money. It was nice.” Even after spending just a short time with Helena it is clear she is an extremely humanitarian person.

I ask about other parts of her life. “Before I came to CERN I was at home. I have a son of 18 months and a daughter of 4 years. I like spending time with my family, but also try to find the time for reading and yoga and swimming. We’re also constructing a house at the moment, which takes up so much time! You have to plan absolutely everything. Where do you want your sockets? Oh, and how many do you want?!” She sighs.

“And how is your physics?” I ask. Helena laughs, “I probably shouldn’t say this but it was my worst subject at school. No, maybe not. I took the science pathway at school so I was exposed to it and I understand the general concepts. It helps that my husband works here and that I’ve been around CERN a bit before. I believe CERN is a nice place. I wanted to work here because people don’t come here to ‘earn money’. People here are driven by desire and I think that’s nice. It’s also nice to be involved with an actual experiment here as it’s the core thing to do at CERN.”