The LHC babies

With the machine restart and first collisions at 3.5 TeV, 2009 and 2010 were two action-packed years at the LHC. The events were a real media success, but one important result that remained well hidden was the ten births in the LHC team over the same period. The mothers – engineers, cryogenics experts and administrative assistants working for the LHC – confirm that it is possible to maintain a reasonable work-life balance. Two of them tell us more…


Verena Kain (left) and Reyes Alemany (right) in the CERN Control Centre.

With the LHC running around the clock, LHC operations engineers have high-pressure jobs with unsociable working hours. These past two years, which will undoubtedly go down in the annals of CERN history, the LHC team had their work cut out, but despite their high-octane professional lives, several female members of the team took up no less of a challenge in their private lives, creating a mini-baby-boom by which the LHC start-up will also be remembered. "Working hard for the success of a challenging project like the LHC creates an especially inspiring environment that is also personally satisfying. It's fantastic to see that modern women can participate in such a demanding atmosphere. Both CERN and society have made big steps towards establishing equal opportunities," states former Equal Opportunities Officer, Doris Chromek-Burckhart.

One of the happy mothers, Reyes Alemany, a physicist working as an LHC operations engineer, has now had her third child: "I'm really happy because my pregnancy went very well," she says. "I was even able to work up until term, and surprisingly enough I didn't find the night shift so tiring during my pregnancy." Her two daughters, aged 7 and 9, welcomed a baby brother into their lives on 7 June 2010. Reyes has been a CERN staff member for 16 years, having started her career as a physicist working on the DELPHI detector before moving on to CMS. She joined the accelerator team in 2006.

On 29 December 2009, a couple of months after the LHC restart, Verena Kain gave birth to her first child. Verena has been working at CERN for nine years, the last four as operations engineer at the LHC. She obtained her doctorate in the LHC interlock team and then carried on as a Fellow at the SPS. "Everything went very well for me. I gave birth only two weeks after the start of my maternity leave," Verena tells us. "After the birth, I wanted to stay in touch with work and have something else to do in addition to being a mother, breastfeeding and changing nappies." For Verena, the most stressful part of having a baby was trying to find child care when she had to return to work. "Crèche vacancies are few and far between, so you have to be very patient. In the end, I hired a nanny to look after my child," she recalls.

As their careers are more or less put on hold during their sixteen-week maternity leave, mothers can find it difficult to strike a balance between motherhood and professional life when they return to work. According to Reyes: "I do manage to marry both roles but I admit it would be much harder without my husband's precious help. Having said that, I think that if you really love your work, the problems aren't insurmountable." Hats off to all these women who contribute to operating these two unimaginably complex devices - families and the LHC! 

by Laëtitia Pedroso