Scientific, geeky and multicultural

Oct 25, 2019

My PHD equipped me for the challenges that every woman meets in STEM careers

Spotlight on:

Jean (Bunn) Richardson

CERN experience:

Fellow in 1981-1982
Scientific associate in 1984-19986

Today:

Data scientist at a major international group for drug development.

 

Building skills at CERN that determined her future career in industry

Before becoming a CERN alumna, Jean Richardson has been a friend for over 30 years. We got back in touch recently because CERN celebrated the 30 years anniversary of the world wide web.  Jean had been a participant at the first web conference and kindly shared with the CERN Alumni network some memories of these exciting times at CERN and how she pursued her career from there, which she describes as scientific, geeky and multicultural.

In 1977-1981, Jean was doing a PhD in Particle Physics at the University of Liverpool and was involved in the p p-bar at 12 GeV/c experiment at CERN WA49, which looked for Baryonium, coming to Geneva every few months as a student. When she finished her PhD she was lucky to be offered a fellowship within a big collaboration, for an experiment in the North Area, EHS. Her job consisted of setting up instrumentation, running Monte Carlo simulations and analysing data with the Hydra software. “I really enjoyed working with people who were experts in their fields, and young people with similar academic backgrounds. There was a lot of hard work including shifts but also a lot of socializing and fun”.

Hundreds of physicists contributed to the experiment, and Jean remembers with a smile one of her collaborators, Gianni Zumerle, who was always listed last in the publications - because of his name.

There was a diverse mixture of cultures. Jean recalls sharing an office with a Japanese scientist who insisted to take a photo of her in the office because “no one in Japan would believe that he had shared an office with a woman...!”.

After 2 years as a CERN fellow, Jean got a post doc position at RAL (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) and worked another three years at CERN with programming and data analysis on charm physics. The expertise she acquired this far proved to be very important in her career later on.

At that time, Jean was convinced that she would - of course - stay in Physics!  However, her employment with RAL ended and her association with CERN discontinued and, for personal reasons, Jean preferred to stay in the Geneva area.

Ian Willers and John Gamble, two close CERN connections, were collaborating with the University of Geneva to help them set up new computer services. They introduced Jean and helped her to find a position there, which she considered a temporary position before she would go back to physics.

I did not realize at that time, that I was leaving Physics for good...” She remembers.

I installed the first web server of the University to Geneva

She left CERN in 1986 for the University of Geneva where she worked as a computer scientist for 12 years in their Computing Services department.  She saw the birth of the web from very close as she installed the first web server of the university. “People did not realize at that time what a breakthrough, a massive change the web would bring.  The emphasis was put on sharing information without control.  The excitement was there: clicking on links and opening images and videos. You no longer had to attend committee meetings; the information was available at a click.

The Vice rector of the University, Prof. Bernard Levrat, was also in charge of the computing services for the library, started the RERO project for the central catalogue and exchange of books and documents between the universities of the Swiss Romande and Italian cantons. Jean was a key actor of this project, and RERO remains today the search interface to the collections of the prestigious UNIGE library (https://www.unige.ch/biblio/en/training/workshops/decouvrez-rero/).

Unfortunately, the Swiss universities decided to host the RERO databases in the Valais, and, because our alumna was determined to stay in the Geneva area, she found herself once again looking for another position.

When playing hockey gets you to your next job in industry

A passionate hockey player, Jean played for Servette, in the national leagues. One of her teammate’s husband worked for Serono and grabbed her CV at a hockey team BBQ party.  She later was told that she got the job at Serono mainly because she had worked at CERN and because of her background as a scientist.

From 1998 to 2013, the job at Serono entailed running their scientific database of chemical compounds used to develop new medical products.  Jean designed one of the databases, which ran on top of Oracle and worked on various research projects involving maths, “At that time, you still had to write your own algorithms. Today, they are readily available and just need to be plugged in!” recalls Jean, who always particularly relished the geeky aspects of a job.

Jean was offered to take the managerial route in Serono but she had made up her mind to stay close to technology and to keep her hands in the nitty gritty of computer science. “In those days, you had to make up your mind and decide whether you wanted to go into management or not.  It was very clear for me that I did not want that.

Serono was eventually bought by Merck in 2006, who then decided to close their research site in Geneva a few years later.  She was offered her a job in Boston and was tempted but said no to the opportunity, which would take her far from her family.

Staying abreast with technology

In 2015 Jean resorted to moving back to England where she was offered a job by a scientific informatics company, focusing on data management, analysis and visualization, Dotmatics www.dotmatics.com  , specializing in the management of chemical and biological data in the life sciences domain.

She has fond memories of Dotmatics, which is a dynamic and young company. “The learning curve was steep but I enjoyed working there.  I managed to stay abreast of the latest technology, which is essential in these jobs.

In 2018, Jean got an opportunity to come back to the Geneva area, and her family, as she was offered a job at Debiopharm International, a firm based in Lausanne.  She is manager of a project for structuring and storing their data in a secure and easily retrievable way. The skills she acquired at Dotmatics has proven invaluable in her current job.

The goal of the project is also to help scientists share data, something similar to what is done at CERN and I am thoroughly enjoying this job. “

My PhD and experience at CERN helped me face many challenges in my career

I was lucky, as a woman, to hold a PhD and to have worked at CERN, as this always gave me a particular status” says Jean. “I remember, when I started at the University of Geneva , some people thought, and told me so, that because I was married , I did not need to get a job, but being a scientist gave me some backup in the professional directions I was determine to take. Moreover, science and the experience of complex systems and collaboration at CERN taught me logical thinking, how to analyze problems and to find solutions.”

Now that the connection with CERN Is re-established by the CERN Alumni network, I would love to be more engaged and to contribute where possible “.

Thank you Jean, we have you on our list of potential alumni volunteers!

 


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