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A Life Lived Backwards

Patricia Alireza (Angela Saini)

Standing in her corner of the Condensed Matter and Materials Physics group at University College London, Patricia Alireza looks much younger than her 51 years. That's fitting, because "career-wise, I'm 35 years old," she says. "I went from being a housewife to being a scientist."

"I was always the older one in the class. It was a very hard thing to catch up because, after all, I hadn't done any math for 15 years!" -Patricia Alireza

Now a grandmother, Alireza was one of four winners of this year's L'Oréal U.K. and Ireland Fellowship for Women in Science. It is a prize usually awarded to researchers early in their career--and so it is for her. But by her own admission, she has lived her life upside-down, starting a family long before becoming a scientist.

"Mine is a bit of an unusual story," she laughs. "I got married young and had three kids in my 20s. By then, I was living in Saudi Arabia with my husband. I loved science since I was a kid and wanted so much to study it but, of course, life happens."

Now 6 years into her postdoctoral research, Alireza is beginning to make waves in the physics community with her experiments on the effects of high pressure at a quantum level. Behind her scientific success, however, is a difficult journey to realize a childhood ambition.

A natural experimentalist

Alireza's life has been punctuated by long journeys between continents: Born in Mexico City in 1958, Alireza moved to the United States with her family a few years after finishing high school. There, she met her husband and shortly after they got married, they moved to his home country of Saudi Arabia, where he worked. She wanted to become a scientist, but being a woman who didn't speak Arabic automatically precluded Alireza from further education at that time. She took correspondence courses instead.

It wasn't until she and her family moved to California in the summer of 1988, after her youngest child was in school, that she grabbed her chance to go to university full-time. She enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles to do an undergraduate degree in physics, then did a master's in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. "I would take classes in the morning and go home in the afternoon to look after the kids," she recalls. "I was always the older one in the class. It was a very hard thing to catch up because, after all, I hadn't done any math for 15 years!'"

Alireza turned out to be a natural experimentalist with a passion for both physics and electronics. "If I hadn't done physics, I would have done engineering. I love working with my hands," she says.

In 1999, her family moved again, this time to England. When her children went to boarding school there, she launched a full-time research career, winning a place on a Ph.D. course at the University of Cambridge to study the effects of high pressure on materials. She was 45 years old by the time she finished. She stayed on at Cambridge to do further research and, when her project there ended earlier this year, she moved to University College London.

Tough choices


Patricia Alireza, pictured here with Grita Loebsack (left), managing Director of L'Oréal U.K., is one of four winners of this year's L'Oréal U.K. and Ireland Fellowship for Women in Science.

Alireza is living proof that age is no barrier to launching a science career. But despite her success, Alireza discourages young women from postponing work until after having a family. "My choice was not so simple, and I needed a lot of help," she says. Starting a science career from scratch with a family in tow turned out to be a huge challenge, and one that she could only manage with plenty of help from her family and colleagues. "I was encouraged by my professors and tutors," she explains.

Her biggest supporter has been her husband. "We both came from very conservative societies--him from Saudi Arabia and me from Mexico--where a woman had her place in the home," she says. As a young wife, she felt she was expected to only raise children and manage the household. But her husband bucked these traditions, and encouraged her dream to become a scientist. "When I went to university, he started taking over more and more of the responsibilities in the house. He would take the children all day so I could study, and then he also started the cooking."

Now, he has semi-retired and taken over the running of their home completely, leaving her free to devote her time to her research. "I don't touch anything in the house or the kitchen anymore. When I come home from the lab, he has dinner ready for me," she says, smiling. He even loaded her iPod, which sits next to the microscope in her lab, with the classical music she loves.

Studying extremes

"All of my research is performed under extreme conditions at high pressure, low temperatures and high magnetic fields with the aim to study magnetic and electronic properties," she explains. When certain elements or compounds are exposed to thousands of atmospheres of pressure, they become superconductors. Alireza is studying how their electronic structures change when this happens. "It is very time-consuming and specialized work," she says as she coils a gold wire, only 12 microns thick, around a sewing needle so it can be used in a pressure test. "Very few labs in the world do it."

Among her successes: Alireza was able to explain why iron arsenides exhibit superconductivity at high pressures, which could one day lead to new iron-based, high-temperature superconductors. A paper she published earlier this year has already been cited 78 times. She now has a patent pending on a tiny pressure cell that can withstand up to 150,000 atmospheres. At the time she designed it, the limit for such a cell was just 20,000 atmospheres.

Besides her scientific research, she has also contributed to her field by building successful collaborations. Over the years, she has worked with Bristol University in England and the U.S. National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida.

It was high-profile research projects with institutions like these that helped win Alireza the L'Oréal U.K. fellowship, whose sponsors include the U.K. National Commission for UNESCO, the Irish National Commission for UNESCO, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the U.K. Resource Centre for Women in Science, Technology, and Engineering. And for Alireza, the award, which comes with £15,000 of funding, is more than a recognition of her achievements: "First of all, the award was such a wonderful honor. But it has also been very useful to me, because it will allow me to cover all the expenses in the lab for the next year," she explains.

'If you love it, just do it'

As well as financially supporting female scientists, the L'Oreal Women in Science Fellowships also encourage women to pursue scientific careers. It makes role-models of the women who are awarded the prizes, and Alireza is no exception. In a field as male-dominated as physics, she has helped scientists realize that there is no reason to stick to traditional ways of working--or of thinking about work. "Physicists tend to be overly focused on their work," says Suchitra Sebastian, a researcher who collaborates with Alireza in the Quantum Matter group at the University of Cambridge. "So it's an inspiration that Patricia manages to be such a proficient physicist and still balance the rest of her life. It makes us believe we can do it too."

Alireza believes more women are reaching that same conclusion. "When I was studying at UCLA, we were 10% women in our course, and we were 10% again at Cambridge. But these days I see lots more women doing physics. And there are so many programs out there these days to help." "Things have improved a lot over the years," she adds.

Some physics organizations are trying to make it possible for more women to overcome some of the old-fashioned mindsets that have held them back. Since 2007, the Institute of Physics in England has championed a set of recommendations to address the problem of under-representation of women in physics departments, called the Juno Code of Practice. It encourages departments to allow flexible and part-time working, as well as promoting more friendly and supportive work environments. Almost 100 people in the U.K. have also benefited from the Daphne Jackson Fellowship, which provides training and research projects to scientists returning to work after a career break. In the United States, the American Physical Society awards the M. Hildred Blewett scholarship, which enables female physicists to return to work after setting aside their careers for family reasons.

"If you love it, just do it," Alireza advises women considering a career in physics. "When I look back at my life, it seems to me that I have done everything backwards and the wrong way round. It wasn't easy to become a scientist later in life, but I felt like I couldn't have done anything else."

Angela Saini is a science journalist based in London.

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