By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs
Marta Losada is the dean of science at NYU Abu Dhabi, the chair for the group responsible for creating a Latin American research infrastructure strategy for high-energy physics, and the former president of one of Colombia’s best universities. She carries herself and speaks with the intensity and clarity of someone who has been at the highest echelons of science and academia, the kind of heights that saw her interacting with government ministers and world leaders. But when asked about research, a sigh and smile take over, abandoning the laser-sharp focus required of someone who works tirelessly on two different continents.
“Your life as a scientist is great, it’s just great. I love research and I really do enjoy it, but this opened up many more avenues of opportunity. And I found that I can apply myself, and I was useful in other ways so that more researchers have stronger support and better opportunities,” she said.
Losada has a soft spot for research. She speaks about it lovingly, almost longingly, as most of her time now is spent working for the advancement of science at NYUAD and the development of research capacity in Latin America. She is still deeply passionate about research. Despite Losada now seldom finding enough time to research, she has fond memories of being in the field and conducting experiments on some truly amazing projects.
Losada graduated from high school when she was 15. She enrolled in Colombia’s national university as a science major bringing the total number of women in the cohort to two. When the other female compatriot failed the first semester and dropped out, Losada continued her journey in science as the only woman in her cohort.
“I never had other women in any of my courses, after the first semester,” she said. “Clearly at the policy level something has to be done to promote girls in science and math. You also need to have more role models, and you need to give opportunities.”
During her studies, Losada was increasingly more interested in high-energy physics, a nascent field around the world but one that few academics were focused on in Colombia. By the time she graduated with a PhD, she was among the very first academics in that field in South America. The timing was ideal, as the Atlas Project was expanding its quest, opening up room for research groups to take part in what would eventually become one of the most fundamental physics experiments of our time.
Losada was part of a wide-scale international collaboration to discover the Higgs boson, an elementary component in the physics framework that defines everything in the known universe. The observation of the particle was the last hidden component on the journey of solidifying the fundamental model of physics. The international effort that became known as the Atlas Experiment proved why other particles have mass. The discovery that Losada participated in has been doused wide scale recognition of its importance.
But getting her country involved was no easy feat. She had to convince government officials in Colombia that their involvement in this monumental project was integral to the advancement of science in the country, and pertinent to their role in the wider academic community.
“I said we can’t miss out on this, but convincing ministers and people higher up really requires a lot of tenacity. It’s a significant amount of funding, and there’s people who said ‘why should we spend money on that?’ But that’s always the discussion. In the end it worked out,” she said.
Her journey of getting her country engrossed in scientific endeavors did not end there. After that, and several promotions later, she found herself regularly talking to leaders to promote funding for research, despite finding herself having almost no time to do her own research.
“It’s amazing to be a small part, but a part nonetheless of its discovery. But the participation, what I brought back, was capacity building, making sure that younger people were getting involved and generating a school of strength for Colombia,” she said.
Along with her full-time job at NYUAD, Losada sits on the chair of the LASF4RI, the Latin American Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructure responsible for creating a research strategy for the entire continent. So as most people are going home from work in the UAE, Losada is often preparing for online meetings that she will be holding with her colleagues who are just waking up in Latin America.
"People who know me, tell me, ‘I can’t believe you left.’ That was a tough decision, but I am very happy with what we set up. Here I feel like I can do a lot. NYUAD has huge potential, I only had to come here once to recognize it."
Her experience in research, along with her passion for advancing the research capacity for institutions, or in this case entire continents, drives Losada. Her decision to leave Universidad Antonio Nariño, where her tenure as president saw the university become one Latin America’s best, was difficult. But she was driven by the promise of NYUAD.
“People who know me, tell me, ‘I can’t believe you left.’ That was a tough decision, but I am very happy with what we set up. Here I feel like I can do a lot. NYUAD has huge potential, I only had to come here once to recognize it. Many things resonated with me here given the trajectories in higher education, in internationalization and research. They all came together in this institution,” she said.
Between working a fulltime job as a dean of science for one of the fasting growing universities on one continent, and working for the advancement of science on another, one has to imagine that Losada has to unwind in some way. And she does, but not in the way that most imagine spending their free time.
“I try to balance my time so that I get a chance to do some research, because I love it. It really makes me happy.”
*Photos were provided courtesy of CERN and the Atlas Project.