Women @ Energy: Mary Bishai

Mary Bishai enlarge

Dr. Mary Bishai is a Physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, NY. She received her Ph.D. in High Energy Physics from Purdue University in 1999 and a BA from University of Colorado, Boulder in 1991.

The following profile was published by the Department of Energy's Office of Economic Impact and Diversity for the Women @ Energy series, which showcases women who are helping change the world, ensuring America’s security and prosperity through transformative science and technology solutions. Meet the other scientists profiled in the Women @ Energy series.

Dr. Mary Bishai is a Physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, NY. She received her Ph.D. in High Energy Physics from Purdue University in 1999 and a BA from University of Colorado, Boulder in 1991. Dr. Bishai's research is in the field of flavor physics with a particular emphasis on neutrino physics. Dr. Bishai is currently the Project Scientist for the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE). Dr. Bishai has been a scientific collaborator on many leading experiments in the field of experimental particle physics including the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment, the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS), the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF II), and the CLEO experiment.

Her work on long baseline neutrino oscillations as part of the joint Fermilab-BNL US Long Baseline Study in 2007 provided important input to the DOE's and NSF's NuSAG, HEPAP, and P5 advisory panels which strongly recommended that a long baseline neutrino oscillation experiment be a top priority of the US high energy physics program. These recommendations facilitated the CD-0 decision by the DOE for the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE) project. Dr. Bishai's work on the measurement of the J/Psi and b-hadron production cross-sections at CDF II has garnered over 700 citations. As a graduate student on the CLEO experiment, her research provided the first indication of parity violation in decays of charm-strange baryons. She is the co-author of over 340 scientific publications.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

Both my parents were professional engineers and my father had a Ph.D in electrical engineering. My maternal grandfather in Egypt had been a math and science teacher, a school principal, and a community leader. He had cemented in his extended family and students the importance of women’s education and championed my mother and my aunts on both the maternal and paternal side of my family to pursue higher education. I therefore grew up in a large extended family with a strong culture of STEM education. I loved science and math in school from very early on. I grew up in Nigeria (until 5th grade) and then Egypt and my parents supplied me with a lot of very expensive English science books, encyclopedias and magazines at great cost to themselves. I spent many hours buried in the wonderful illustrations and stories of science discoveries and the scientists who carried them out. At some point I briefly wanted to be a neurosurgeon after being given a beautifully illustrated encylopedia on the human body.

As a daughter of middle class professional Egyptians though, the only two culturally accepted choices for college were engineering and medicine. Basic science was for those who didn’t get high enough grades to be accepted in either of the two top subjects. "Unfortunately" for my parents an article in the National Geographic in 1985 titled "Worlds Within the Atom" on the particle physics research at CERN was it. I decided then and there that particle physics is what I wanted to do and I dreamed of being a scientist at CERN. Despite their misgivings about the utility of a physics major, my parents supported me unconditionally. Now I am a scientist at Brookhaven Lab, which has a long illustrious history in particle physics. I still carry with me that 1985 National Geographic magazine.

2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

Well to be perfectly honest, the last decade has been a roller coaster of excitement, getting tenure (and US citizenship) and extremes of despondancy as funding for particle physics projects has dried up, and the DOE (and NSF) has shut down all the leading US facilities in my field. I went to the shutting down of my thesis experiment, CLEO which ran at the Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR) accelerator. I watched as the Tevatron collider, where I had done my postdoctoral work and where my publication on the production of B quarks is a top cited paper in the field, shutdown in 2012. I have loved the work over the last decade at Brookhaven Lab where I have worked with an amazing groups of researchers to formulate a large neutrino oscillation experiment to search for matter/anti-matter asymmetries and explain the origin of matter (and us) in the Universe. To be part of this billion dollar experiment to elucidate basic questions of nature is exactly what I dreamed about doing when I decided to become a particle physicist at age 15. But I am a bit demoralized that after 10 years of work, despite the endorsement of the scientific vision by DOE advisory panels and the international scientific community, we have been unable in the US to mount this visionary project which is the only leading particle physics project based in the US in the coming decades. Nevertheless, I love my work - which was a dream come true - at a DOE lab, and setbacks notwithstanding, I am confident that eventually we will succeed.

3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

It depends on what the goal is. Is the goal to produce a better informed citizenry who can make informed decisions in a world increasingly more complex and technology driven? If so, then a rethinking of US K–12 education is needed—for ALL. I find it ridiculous that you can graduate high school in this country with no math beyond some basic geometry. If EVERYBODY is expected to reach a certain level of proficiency in STEM, then there is no a-priori bias that any one group is not up to the task—which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Egypt, when I was growing up, girls were always at least 40% of the top scorers in science on the national college entrance exams. Of course this did not guarantee that they would be represented equally in the workplace by any means, but at least there was no bias that women couldn’t do as well in a physics or math physics class (gender biases came later in the workplace). In the U.S., in my professional life I have learnt that when you demand more of people and set a high standard, people will rise to the challenge. Too much choice in high school as to what you need to graduate implies that some classes are for some people and not others. The huge disparities in local school districts also breeds an imbalance in access to STEM education. I have mentored and met high school students from some of Long Island’s wealthiest public school districts and I see no problem of representation of women in STEM fields in these districts.

4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

You have to love it. This is more than a profession, it is a life's calling and be prepared to leave the US and travel for extended periods since increasingly large scale ambitious and ground-breaking projects are overseas. Several years ago, I met another 16 year who had also decided she wanted to be a particle physicist. I didn’t need to sell her on the field, just reassure that it can be highly rewarding, but like everything in life it can also be extremely frustrating. The demands of travel also put quite a strain on one's private life.

5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

As a teenager I took piano lessons, and although I was terrible at it, it cemented my love for classical music in addition to the pop icons of the time of course (Madonna, Laura Branigan, Michael Jackson) and the 50's and 60's crooners that my father loved. At around the same time I got hooked on particle physics, there was a series of broadcasts of full length operas on Egyptian TV (only two channels at the time)—a very very rare occurrence—and I sat glued to the TV watching Puccini's Turandot. That was it. I was hooked. Of course actually attending Opera was mostly out of reach for me in Egypt and also as a grad student in the US—both because I was not close enough to a venue and the high cost. But I listened religiously to the NPR broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Lyric Opera. When I became a postdoc at Fermilab, I became a season subscriber to the Lyric which was affordable. Now that I am in New York I go occasionally to the Met. And yes, I did finally get to see Puccini's Turandot in all its glory at the Met. Couldn’t ask for more. At the lowest points in my professional career, I was fortunate that there was always Opera to lift my spirits and offer escape for a couple of hours. These days, my uneven and much more extensive travel means that I get to go to the Opera a lot less.

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