Berkeley Lab

3Q4: Marlene Turner

Marlene Turner

A personal and technical journey from car projects and robot battles to laser plasma accelerators

With interests rooted in both particle physics and accelerator science and technology, Marlene is a postdoctoral scholar with ATAP’s Berkeley Lab Laser Accelerator Center (BELLA). A native of Austria, she earned a master’s degree in engineering physics and applied physics at the Technical University of Graz.

Her relationship with CERN began with summer internships and eventually became a PhD program. Her interests turned toward accelerator science and technology, and for her doctoral studies, she worked on AWAKE, their proton-driven plasma wake acceleration experiment.

Marlene won a student-poster prize at the 2016 North American Particle Accelerator Conference, and was also chosen to represent her US Particle Accelerator School class with a talk about their class project — a concept for a light source based on a compact storage ring with a laser-plasma accelerator injector.

In 2019 she was selected for the Laser-Plasma Accelerator Workshop’s John Dawson Thesis Prize, which honors the best doctoral dissertations in their field, as well as the Viktor-Hess Thesis Prize of the Austrian Physical Society.

How did you get interested in accelerator physics?

I started out at CERN doing data analysis for one of the detector collaborations, but I was always more oriented toward the technical side and became more interested in the accelerator itself. I used to work in conventional accelerators, designing and building beamlines. but for a PhD you want something that’s research oriented and new, so I was attracted toward their plasma wakefield concepts.

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After I finished my PhD, a second segment of our experimental work began, and I really enjoyed the work and was well integrated into the team, so I stayed on for a bit more than a year after graduation because I didn’t want to leave the experiment while it was running.

At CERN, instead of big laser systems, we used proton bunches to excite the plasma wakefields. I thought it would be good to have a postdoc that was similar but not the same, so I could make use of the experience but broaden my horizons. So I decided to come to BELLA, where we do similar physics but in a different way.

My interests include both particle physics and accelerator technology, and working on the BELLA petawatt laser and the staging experiments, I feel that I’m really in the mainstream of the long-term goals of BELLA. It’s no secret why I wanted to come here, and for me it’s really the perfect match, staying true to what I wanted to have a career in, and also pushing myself to learn about lasers as well as particle accelerators.

How do you do team science when it’s so hard to get the team together during the pandemic?

Of course, we went virtual, like everybody. Since June, with the Lab’s phased re-opening I’ve had the possibility to go back to the Lab, but it’s a lot different when you can have the whole team together rather than being almost alone. We’ve had to learn how to work effectively together without physically being together. That involves a lot of Zoom, headphones, and cameras to make the people who can’t be at the Lab feel they’re there.

It isn’t what I would have ever chosen, but I must say I am learning a lot because I have the opportunity to do everything, under the guidance of the experts who otherwise would have done it themselves.

It’s a challenge to overcome, but as scientists, all our work is overcoming challenges, isn’t it? A career path in science involves building things that we don’t know how to build, and being flexible when we encounter obstacles. Our challenges with COVID and with accelerator physics really draw on the same qualities.

A lot of the things we’re trying to do in advanced accelerators, nobody knows if they can be done, but that’s our job, right?—to try, and to seek. Once we show that it can be done, making it work every time is another important job, but to me, pushing forward to that first demonstration is the beauty of what we do.

What inspired you to go into science, and what advice would you give?

I grew up in a very technical family, where we always fixed things ourselves, always built things. My dad bought broken cars and we used to repair them together. One of my favorite things that we did together was building “killer robots.” It may not be necessary, but it’s a background that inspired me to do technical work, and gave me the confidence that I can do it. I even wanted to be a car mechanic, but I was also very good at school, and my father insisted that I go to university.

I didn’t really have anybody who pushed me into accelerator physics, but accelerators are just a big toy to play with! We build them, we use them, we improve them… I saw accelerator people, how they work, how exciting it is when things finally work, and I said, “Yeah, I want to do the same.”

I really like seeing more women getting into the field. It’s important to have more diversity, to be more open, to be more inclusive. All my career, I haven’t exactly been surrounded by a lot of women, let’s say it like that. There’s still work to do, and I’d like to see more of it, to really see it become normal, but I’m happy to see that at least the acknowledgment that it needs to be done is there now.

I think it’s very good that here at the Lab, these things are acknowledged and discussed. Being here, I feel like I fit in, and it’s a very good opportunity to make things better.

I definitely had people in my life who supported me in the choices that I made, and when you feel you can’t do something, that’s what you go back to. The key ingredients are passion and the motivation to do something. I believe that if you have that, there’s nothing that can stop you.