Simona Rolli is a Program Manager at the US Department of Energy, in the Office of Science, Office of High Energy Physics. She is overseeing federally funded programs in experimental particle physics, carried out at National Labs and public and private universities. Simona moved to DOE in March 2011, after a fifteen year career in particle physics. She obtained her Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics from the University of Pavia, Italy, in 1996 and spent most of her career at Fermilab, working on the Tevatron Collider CDF experiment as a Research Scientist on behalf of Tufts University. Simona was also a member of the ATLAS Collaboration at the CERN Large Hadron Collider. She has more than 1000 publications in peer-reviewed journals. Since 2007 Simona has been a member of the Particle Data Group Collaboration, an international collaboration charged with summarizing Particle Physics, as well as related areas of Cosmology and Astrophysics, publishing the Review of Particle Physics.
What inspired you to work in STEM?
Since I was a little girl I envisioned myself working, one day, in a laboratory. I grew up in the '70s, and at that time there was still a big respect and interest for science. Some of the TV shows of that time featured prominently science and science fiction (like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos) and they got me hooked! I was talking with some colleagues who grew up in the same period and we all felt the same. The sense of awe and inspiration we perceived from science was very strong. By the age of 11 I was very interested in astronomy and started reading magazines and books. I ended up completing my high school education in the humanities and music (I also hold a degree in classical piano) and decided to go into physics.
As like many other physicists, I started with a big love of astronomy. I was 8 when the Voyager 1 was launched and remember vividly the incredible sense of inspiration and possibility that this event generated. When I was in high school a friend of my mother went to visit CERN in Geneva (the European center for particle physics) and she brought back some informational material that she gave me and my sister, telling us that she thought that this was what we would do one day. Well, I ended up at CERN in the summer of 1992, to complete my thesis in theoretical particle physics and my sister went into physics too (she specialized in material science). I later on went to the premier particle physics lab in the U.S., Fermilab and ended up spending more than 15 years doing research in experimental particle physics, dividing my time between CERN and Fermilab.
My parents were a strong inspiration: both are now retired physicians and both strongly encouraged my sister and I to go into science, for the many possibilities the field would offer us.
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
This is truly my dream job!
I worked for over 15 years as a researcher in particle physics and honestly, when I started I didn't have the faintest idea that one day I would end up working on the side of the "funding agencies". It is wonderful to have the opportunity of bringing the experience I acquired "practicing" in the field to the decision making process of allocating funds and help shape the direction of the field.
As an experimental particle physicist I was part of very large teams of people and I felt very committed to the success of our experiments and our research. Having spent a large part of my career in a national lab, I realized that it is crucial to have government-sponsored facilities where basic research can be done and the next generation of scientists can be trained. When I decided to join the federal team supervising and managing the High Energy Physics (HEP) program, I considered this as one of the best way I could use my expertise to help shape the program for the future. I believe that positions like the one I have now are ideally suited for people who have spent a significant fraction of time in the field, since they can bring the sense of urgency common to scientific developments and the enthusiasm that follows.
I was asked once what makes my job " cool": well, I get paid to read research proposals, educate myself on the progress in particle physics, experimental and theoretical, meet people in the field and help them achieve success in their field of research, and I keep the broad view of the field. I feel even more part of the scientific community now than before joining the office. This is really my dream job!
While at DOE I was able to oversee different programs, starting with theoretical particle physics, collider physics research and operation and recently supervision of large construction projects. As long as I’ll work (and possibly later, when I’ll retire) I’ll strive to learn new things and widen my knowledge. With the supervision of projects I landed closer to the realm of “industrial engineering” and I love it! A long way from my beginning in theoretical physics, but incredibly challenging and ever interesting.
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
Education, education, education! Education needs to be accessible and affordable.
We live in a world, which is shaped in every aspect by science and technology. We have drugs to cure most of our ailments, we fly airplanes, we use computers to keep connected globally (the World Wide Web was invented at CERN!) and the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, since the days when I was growing up science for some reason has stopped to inspire. And tragically is has stopped to inspire the young generation in our so-called first world (it still does in many developing countries where the proportional investment in Research and Development is much bigger than what happens in the U.S. or Europe). It is a real shame that these days making money and fast profit is valued much more than doing science. This way of thinking is seriously jeopardizing our future possibilities, as it has been shown over and over that investments in science and technology produce and enormous return to society at large. The first step is to educate, and show the young generation that science is good and opening up unlimited possibilities.
Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Be curious, ask questions, love nature and wonder at the incredible amount of things that we still have to learn. Sometimes (often) I look at the sky at night and feel overwhelmed by simply thinking that my life will never be long enough to allow me to learn all that there is to learn about our universe, how our brain works, how many planets are there like ours, what is really dark matter and dark energy (well, maybe I will live long enough to learn about this!) our place in this large scheme of things. Yes, I know what the Higgs boson is, but this is just a tiny part of an incredibly large picture. We, humanity, needs to keep wondering and exploring: our job will be never finished.
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I play the piano; I swim; I read a lot. And I dream.