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Maria Cabrera at a blackboard writing

Seeking the secrets of the universe in the particle

February 19, 2021

By Alison Bert, DMA

An award-winning particle physicist in Guatemala hopes to convince society that basic science matters too

Caption: Dr María Eugenia Cabrera’s Catalán, Junior Professor in the School of Physical Sciences and Mathematics at the University of San Carlos of Guatemala and winner of a 2021 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World, writes notes for the undergraduate course she teaches. She will explain how we describe particles and antiparticles using relativistic quantum mechanics. (Photo by Dr Giovanni Ramirez).

Her research focuses on the smallest of particles – but understanding them could ultimately lead to a better understanding of the history of the universe.

“I try to understand the theories that explain nature on very, very small scales – subatomic scales smaller than the size of the atom,” explains Dr María Eugenia Cabrera’s Catalán(opens in new tab/window).

As a Junior Professor in the School of Physical Sciences and Mathematics at University of San Carlos Guatemala(opens in new tab/window) (USAC), María researches the phenomenology of physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics. Her work(opens in new tab/window) builds on the discovery of the Higgs boson(opens in new tab/window) particle in 2012, expanding the knowledge of what we know about the Standard Model of particle physics and the fundamental forces of nature.

As with much basic science, it’s a field with more questions than answers. And the fact that Maria’s research is theoretical rather than applied makes it even harder to get funding in her country, where science is less of a priority than in more affluent countries and where scientists have less visibility on the global stage.

María Eugenia Cabrera’s Catalán, PhD

The contrast became apparent after María started her career in Europe. Theoretical physics was in the spotlight at the Institute for Theo­retical Physics(opens in new tab/window) in Madrid, where she earned her PhD, and at the GRAPPA Institute at the University of Amsterdam(opens in new tab/window), where she did postdoctoral research. Funding was readily available for Maria and her colleagues to pursue their research.

But when she returned to Guatemala in 2017 to join the USAC faculty, she encountered a serious obstacle: the country’s need for applied science to solve urgent problems, and the difficulty in securing research funding for basic science, caused her to question whether she should do applied science instead:

I started to realize that here in Guatemala, fundamental science isn’t as important to people. People want to see immediate results, and I think that’s important. … So sometimes I felt like maybe I should do more applied physics now that I was here.

Ultimately, though, her passion for particle physics won out. Maria studies dark matter, the most abundant form of matter in the universe. Observed only by its gravitational interactions, dark matter is essential to developing a more fundamental theory of nature. Through her calculations and computer simulations, Maria studies the interactions between newly discovered particles such as the Higgs boson and potential dark matter candidates to determine what is possible to measure. Understanding their dynamics can help scientists understand the interactions that could occur in particle collider experiments or how dark matter interacts with the Earth in underground experiments.

Over time, Maria has covered significant ground in her field while taking steps to advance the plight of science and scientists in Central America.

Now, she is being recognized globally as a winner of the 2021 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World(opens in new tab/window). She received the award at the virtual 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting(opens in new tab/window) earlier this month.

Her teacher brought math and physics to life

Her passion for physics stems from a physics teacher she had in high school. “He was bringing experiences to the class and challenging us with questions,” she recalled.

The questions would come from the world around them. For example: if two people are boxing, which one uses more energy — the one who throws punches and misses or the one who hits? (The answer was the person who misses because not only do they have to use energy to accelerate their arm, they also have to use energy to withdraw it.)

Her favorite demonstration was Newton’s Cradle(opens in new tab/window), with its five adjacent metal spheres hanging from strings. When the ball at the end is lifted and let go to strike the neighboring sphere, the only visible movement is from the sphere at the other end, demonstrating the conservation of energy and momentum. “I was super-fascinated with that one,” Maria recalled. “I really love that conservation of energy and momentum. It was completely unexpected.

“I liked math,” she added, “but when my physics teacher showed us we could use it to understand everything in our daily lives, I was fascinated. We can build our logic and common sense using physics.”

After winning medals in the National Olympics of Physics and Mathematics in Guatemala, she was selected to represent Guatemala in the Iberoamerican Olympics of Physics in Jaca, Spain, in 2000. At that time, several university professors approached her to encourage her to study physics. She decided to enroll at the University of San Carlos of Guatemala (USAC).

One of her inspirations was Dr Fernando Quevedo(opens in new tab/window), Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge and former longstanding Director of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theo­retical Physics (ICTP)(opens in new tab/window), who would visit the university to talk about physics of the universe.

“It was surprising that we can understand the universe at that level,” Maria said.

Studying abroad

Maria Eugenia at front entrance of CERN

In the image above: Dr María Eugenia Cabrera’s Catalán stands at the entrance of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, where experiments with the Large Hadron Collider led to the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. María was doing a research visit at the CERN Department of Theoretical Physics in 2018.

After graduating with top grades in physics, mathematics and engineering, Maria received a scholarship to ICTP, in Trieste, Italy, where she earned a postgraduate diploma. There she became fascinat­ed by high energy physics and made this the focus of her PhD research at the Institute for Theo­retical Physics(opens in new tab/window) in Madrid. She graduated Cum Laude in 2011 with the distinction of Doctor Europeus.

Although she wanted to return to Guatemala, this wasn’t the right time.

Since the first day I left Guatemala, I was sure I would come back, but at that time it was extremely difficult to get a position at the university. The very few people doing research in physics were doing it in their free time after spending most of their time teaching. Also, I felt I still had so much to learn – my scientific career was just starting.

So she decided to apply for postdoc positions. She did postdoctoral research at the GRAPPA Institute at the University of Amsterdam followed by the Institute of Physics at the University of Sao Paolo(opens in new tab/window).

In 2016, Maria learned that her alma mater, USAC, was creating faculty research positions in physics and mathematics for the first time. She accepted that position.

Maria and students at USAC

María (center) poses with students at her university after giving a talk for them about her research. They are studying to be high school math and physics teachers.

Putting her region on the world science stage

Now, Maria is working to bring greater visibility to physicists in her country and throughout Central America.

In her country, theoretical physicists are uncommon and do not have the visibility of their counterparts in Europe. To extend their reach, she and her colleagues have been working with young physics professors in Honduras to create a Central American Network of High Energy Physics to promote collaboration in the region and improve the quality of postgraduate programs.

In November and December 2020, they held the first Central American Meeting of High Energy Physics, Cosmology and High Energy Astrophysics(opens in new tab/window). The online event included workshops on machine learning techniques, instrumentation, data science and Central American research and a virtual poster session for students and young researchers.

Encouragement from a colleague

In the right image: Dr Susana Arrechea, a researcher in chemical engineering at the University of San Carlos of Guatemala, accepts a 2020 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World at the AAAS Meeting in Seattle (Photo by Alison Bert)

Meanwhile, she was motivated by another scientist from her university who won an OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award last year. Dr Susana Arrechea(opens in new tab/window), a researcher in chemical engineering at USAC, actually encouraged Maria to apply for this award.

Maria wasn’t sure if she would succeed because her research is basic rather than applied, and part of this award is based on showing the impact of your research on society. But Susana was “very enthusiastic” about Maria’s prospects and had benefited greatly from the exposure the award brought to her field.

Dr Susana Arrechea making acceptance speech of OWSD -Elseier Foundation Award 2020

“I saw how this really impacted the society here,” Maria said. “Susana got a lot of attention from people who wanted to do things. She got together with other scientists, built the Guatemalan chapter of OWSD(opens in new tab/window) (Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World), organized events. People think about her when they want to know something about the field.“She’s very famous now. If you say ‘nanotechnology,’ people will think about her immediately.”Now, Maria is hoping to generate the more interest in her own field, despite its theoretical nature.

When I talk about fundamental forces of nature, people feel it's very difficult because they haven't heard about it before. It's not like you read about it in the news like, for example, nanotechnology. You hear about nanotechnology even when you buy clothes.

Right now, I think we have to find our own way to show how science can have a big impact on our society — and to show people that theoretical science is also very important because it's the basis of what we have right now.

I think this award will have very good impact – that people will pay more attention because it's an international award.

In the past few years, Maria has become involved in various outreach activities promoting science and also women in science. She is an adjudicator at school science fairs and an examiner for the Physics Olympics. She also served on the Basic Science Commission of the Guatemalan National Council of Science and Technology(opens in new tab/window), is a member of the Guatemala National Academy of Medical, Physical and Natural Science, and is active in the OWSD Guatemalan Chapter.And while she’s still figuring out the best strategies, she plans to continue being a voice for science in Guatemala and beyond.

The big challenge is that we have to find a way of showing society that science is important in a way they can really understand – the public but also people from the universities, funding agencies and government.

About the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award

Since 2012, the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World(opens in new tab/window) have recognized the achievements of researchers who have made significant contributions to the advancement of scientific knowledge. The program represents a longstanding partnership between the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD)(opens in new tab/window) (OWSD) and the Elsevier Foundation(opens in new tab/window).

Each year, five winners are selected from the following regions: Latin America and the Caribbean; East and South-East Asia and the Pacific; Central and South Asia; the Arab region; Sub-Saharan Africa. Prizes are awarded annually on a rotating basis among the disciplines of Biological Sciences, Engineering Sciences and Physical Sciences.

Each winner is sponsored to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)(opens in new tab/window), where they present their research at a special networking ceremony. There, they have the opportunity to attend workshops, meet experts in their field and visit local laboratories and institutions, establishing contacts and collaboration networks with colleagues from around the world.

With the 2021 winners, the program has awarded 45 scientists from 20 countries. Read their stories(opens in new tab/window).


Portrait photo of Alison Bert