Watch Nuclear Physicist Maria Zurek at Work

Tell us who you are, and what do you do?

I’m a nuclear physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, and I study the tiniest parts that make up everything in our visible world. These super-small building blocks are called quarks and gluons. They come together like puzzle pieces to form protons and neutrons, which are the ingredients of the center of an atom called the nucleus.

 

To learn more about these building blocks, I do exciting experiments! Imagine speeding up and smashing tiny particles, just like a fun science experiment. Through this, I learn fascinating things about how protons and neutrons are made and how they behave. I specifically look for reactions that give us insights into the inside of protons and neutrons. I also work on building large detectors that help us measure the properties of particles produced in these experiments. With the help of my colleagues, who are theoretical physicists, we interpret the data we collect to create 3D “pictures” of these particles.

 

It’s like being a detective investigating the mysteries of the universe’s most fundamental pieces. We’re putting together the pieces of a fascinating puzzle to understand how everything around us is built! 

Maria Zurek

In my work, I often present my research at meetings and conferences. Here, I’m speaking at a conference for undergraduate women in physics that my colleagues and I organized at Argonne this year.

What was your path like, and how hard was it to get to where you are today?

I’ve always loved asking questions, especially about math, physics, and chemistry. But you know what? I also enjoyed reading exciting stories in my literature classes, and I had no idea who I wanted to be when I grew up!

 

My high school physics teacher was super interesting, and I wanted to be like them, uncovering the mysteries of physics. Once, I played with these special gadgets called “particle detectors,” and they showed me something amazing! We’re always getting hit by tiny particles from space. It’s like having stardust all around us! That’s when I decided to study physics to discover even more cool things!

 

Back then, I didn’t know much about careers in science, so I thought becoming a teacher would be my best path. During university, I had some fun experimenting during my undergraduate internships at Fermilab, one of the U.S. National Laboratories. We zoomed tiny particles and saw how they come together to make everything in the world. That’s when my plans to become a teacher turned into dreams of becoming a scientist.

 

But there was a long journey ahead. Moving to Germany for my PhD studies was a bit scary, but I met scientists from all over the world, and we shared our discoveries.

 

The path to becoming a scientist had its challenges. I moved from Poland to Germany, then to California, and finally to Illinois. Being far away from home and constantly changing my surroundings wasn’t easy, but with the help of mentors and friends, I kept going. Now, I work as a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, where I continue to explore the mysteries of the universe.

Maria Zurek

During one of the detector prototype tests at the Fermilab beam test facility, I received an urgent call from my collaborators while driving to the night shift. They needed a new FPGA board, so I turned back, rushed to Argonne, and grabbed the replacement. This photo was taken in our clean room at Argonne, and I sent it to my colleagues in the control room to let them know I got it, and we could continue our measurements.

What is the best part about your work?

The best part about my work is collaborating with brilliant and supportive people who share a true passion for pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Working together as a team, we face exciting challenges during our beam tests, data analysis, and simulations. Being a part of significant projects that can shape the future of our field is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling (but also often a bit stressful).

What is a day in the life of Maria as a physicist like?

My days as a physicist are always changing, and full of exciting things! It usually starts with early morning meetings with my collaborators from all around the world. We talk about our progress in experiments and detector designs, and plan our next steps together. I enjoy sipping my morning coffee during these meetings, and sometimes I work from home.

 

Once I head to the Lab, I dive into analyzing data and doing simulations on my computer. I read scientific papers and reports, and I work on new publications and research proposals. Managing my ongoing projects and reviewing papers and grant proposals from other scientists keeps me busy too.

 

I’m a supervisor for students and postdocs, and I chat with them a lot, either in person or online. We exchange exciting new ideas and work on our projects with other staff scientists and engineers in our group. To share our results, I prepare presentations for conferences and collaboration meetings.

 

In our laboratory space, we prepare new sensors for our experiments. We spend several weeks prototyping and testing the detectors we’re building for the future Electron–Ion Collider in the test beam facilities. It’s like being in a science workshop!

 

I also travel quite a bit! I go to neighboring Fermilab for our detector prototype measurements and data collection. Occasionally, I travel to Virginia for experiments at Jefferson Lab. I attend conferences and workshops, where I get to be a speaker or organize scientific sessions.

 

Since I became a staff scientist, my work has changed a lot. I have more leadership responsibilities, but I still have a blast messing with data and detectors.

 

In my free time, I enjoy engaging in fun science communication projects, listening to audiobooks, and spending quality time with my husband, building Legos together. I love hiking and visiting Chicago museums and opera when I get the chance. Every day is different, and I’m grateful for the exciting journey as a physicist!

Maria Zurek

Here I am at the Fermilab beam test facility, working on our experimental setup to fix the position of our chip with respect to the expected position of the particle beam. Experiments often take place during the night to make the most of the experimental facility.

Who inspires you?

Passionate people, in any discipline and field. People who make an effort to make physics welcoming for everyone. People who challenge me to be a better person and a better scientist. My mentors, my brilliant colleagues, my collaborators. My friends and family. All of them play a significant role in motivating and encouraging me on this journey.

What is the best advice you ever got, and what advice would you like to give our young readers?

I’ve received many valuable pieces of advice in my life, but one that stands out is about tackling big challenges. Someone once told me to approach daunting tasks like eating an elephant—one bite at a time! (Don’t worry, it’s just a metaphor!) It maybe sounds silly, but it really works in overwhelming times. Breaking down complex tasks into smaller, manageable steps can make them feel much more achievable.

 

If you’re interested in science, go for it! The world of science is fascinating and can bring so much fulfillment. It’s like going on an exciting adventure, where you get to understand how everything around us works. There will be ups and downs, for sure. Search for good mentors who will help you on this path. Choose the people around you wisely. Surround yourself with people who are supportive, professional, and passionate about their work. Don’t believe people saying that science is not for girls. Try new things that spark your interest, and stick to the ones that bring you joy.

Maria Zurek

During the Argonne Open House, I had the opportunity to lead a fun activity about particle detectors. We used real simulations of the detector we are building for the future Electron-Ion Collider to showcase the exciting world of science to visitors.

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