Meet Patricia McBride, Particle Physicist Known Around the World

Meet Patricia McBride, Particle Physicist Known Around the World

While a significant gender gap remains, new opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines are enabling women to thrive in STEM education and workplaces.  International research centers are undertaking studies of females achieving success in these disciplines. One such success story involves noted particle physicist Patricia McBride.

Educational Track

Image courtesy Fermilab

Patricia McBride earned her undergraduate degree in physics from Carnegie Mellon University in 1977. She reveals in an interview with CMU that in her major, she was the only female student in her class. However, faculty members there encouraged her to think of physics as a career choice and even suggested she apply for an internship in the field.

This encouragement must have taken root, as she went on to earn her PhD in physics from Yale University. She explains in her interview with CMU that her work at Yale was small in scale compared to the work being done now, because the field of particle physics has grown significantly. As she details in the interview, her PhD thesis experiment involved fewer than 10 people and lasted only weeks to months as compared to efforts now that last decades and involve thousands of scientists.

According to a profile of McBride on the American Physical Society (APS) website, after finishing her degree at Yale, she went on to do postdoctoral research at Harvard. The profile also indicates she spent some time in Texas at the Superconducting Super Collider. Unfortunately, work on this facility was cancelled by funding shortfalls.

Work at Fermilab

From these beginnings, McBride went on to work at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and acts as the country’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory to investigate matter, energy, space, and time. The lab comprises four main research areas: the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment; particle physics; accelerator science and technology; and detectors, computing, and quantum science.

McBride has progressed through numerous roles at Fermilab in her 25 years there, among them, Senior Scientist, Head of Scientific Computing, Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Center Head, and Head of the Particle Physics Division, leading to her role as Distinguished Scientist.  Her research interests involve experimental particle physics, scientific computing, and instrumentation. Further, she has been involved in developing the computing infrastructure needed to process the large amounts of data produced by particle physics experiments.

At Fermilab, she has an interest in expanding international engagement in physics, which she mentions in her CMU interview, and wrote a report on this topic in 2018 for the APS. Further, she discusses working with the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics to ensure that conferences are held globally, not just in the United States and Europe. She also discussed her efforts to ensure representation by women at international conferences and on associated committees.

Leadership at CERN

McBride has also held positions at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland, the largest particle accelerator in the world. In her current role as Deputy Spokesperson for CMS Collaboration, she is one of three leaders managing a major ongoing experiment there, and her responsibilities involve ensuring that the CERN particle detector is operating at all times when the particle accelerator is running. She also must stay on top of all publications that are produced related to the CERN detector experiments. An article published by Fermilab explains that McBride is also in charge of a project to upgrade the particle detector at CERN, which is expected to enable it to better handle increases in data generated by upgrades to the CERN accelerator.  

This two-year position at CERN will come to a close in 2020, and she will return to Fermilab. As McBride states in her CMU interview, she has been working to understand the beginnings of the universe, the properties of matter, and the ways matter interacts, and she explains that this understanding can also help predict what will happen to the universe in the future. She notes that she first came to appreciate physics when she was in the eighth grade and her mother gave her a book about particle accelerators. She’s done much to advance this area of science since then.