by Polly Bennett. Published: 02 March 2012

Despite being tired and already on her second coffee of the day Leticia is bright and cheerful when we meet at R1. Being from Southern Europe, and perhaps because she has spent so much time in Italy, she manages to look infinitely smarter than me, even though we are wearing a similar arrangement of jumper and jeans. She is unabashed as we sit down to talk and frequently stops to ask me as many questions as I ask her.

Leticia Cunqueiro Mendez

Leticia at the Fori Imperiali, Rome

Leticia is from the region of Galicia in the north-west of Spain, where her physics life started at the University of Santiago de Compostela, the town famous as the destination of a medieval pilgrimage route. Although now an experimentalist Leticia’s PhD was in phenomenology, an area of particle physics which applies theory to experiments. She thinks for a while as she talks about physics. “During school I was very interested in literature, cinema, and arts, but then I was also good at maths. I thought maybe there were some subjects that it would be easier learning from the books or as a hobby. So I’ve got some rigorous analytical background from studying science, but physics was not a passion from the beginning.”

After her PhD Leticia joined INFN, Frascati, near Rome, and ALICE. “Jets have been the topic of my research since I was in Santiago de Compostela. Back then I studied them from a phenomenological point of view but here at ALICE I am actually measuring them. I want to study how the evolution of jets is changed in heavy ion collisions with respect to proton-proton collisions. So I’m studying how the energy is re-distributed while traversing the medium that’s created in heavy ion collisions. From that we want to infer fundamental properties of the medium such as density and temperature.”

Away from work Leticia is not a particularly outdoors person and instead talks passionately about her love of culture. “It’s what I fill my life with. It’s a need. I like nature once in a while, like having a nice healthy walk around the forest, but I like living in a city with life, like Rome. I find Geneva quite boring, but maybe it’s just that I haven’t discovered it yet.” Perfectly positioned for culture in Rome, Leticia became enchanted by Italian cinema once her language skills were more fluent. “I’m seeing as many films as I can in the original versions. All of Fellini, all of Rosselini,” she pauses laughing, “all ‘inis’. It’s great and is something that has improved my life a lot.” Similarly she confesses to enjoying literature most out of all her interests, and has the benefit of speaking three languages, Spanish, Italian, and English. “I like Hispano-American writers a lot. All Argentinians like Jorges Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. But I’m also now keen on contemporary writers like Arthur Miller and William Faulkner. Those are the writers that go with me everywhere. I try to read these in English, because when you are reading a book in a language that’s not the original one you are reading something else. But it depends on whom, for example John Steinbeck writes in very clear English, but for someone like Virginia Woolfe then maybe it would be easier to go for the Spanish translation.”

She concludes firmly, “Here at CERN it’s very easy to get eaten by physics, but it would be ridiculous if I did only physics. I try to have order and book some hours for myself each day. It’s not easy because of pressure from work but it’s important to have some private space, particularly in this nomadic lifestyle.” Leticia divides her time between CERN and Rome, with occasional trips back to Spain. “You can easily end up confused and alone after so many post-docs from one place to another.” However, the benefit of having to travel between Rome and Geneva seems to suit Leticia’s interests. “It’s about 950km but it’s cool because I stop at some point. Last time I stopped in Torino which is a really beautiful city. I visited the Cinema Museum and next time I’ll stop at the Egyptian Museum, which is intended to be one of the best in Europe. So the trip isn’t so tiring.”

When asked about plans for the future she smiles. “I’m not sure. In that sense I am happy because I’m already 30 and I still have an unclear future, and this is kind of exciting. That wouldn’t happen 40 years ago. Right now I have some missions I want to accomplish with my work here. I’m really interested in jets, so I want to do something with them, and will then see if I can apply for a permanent position in Italy, or somewhere else.”