DESY appoints first woman director of its high energy physics division

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Beate Heinemann

Photo: DESY, Angela Pfeiffer

Beate Heinemann, Senior Scientist at DESY and Professor of Physics at University of Freiburg, will take over the High Energy Physics division at DESY as Director on 1 February. This was unanimously decided by DESY´s supervisory body, the Foundation Council, at its meeting on 7 December. Heinemann is the first female Director in DESY’s history.

"Beate Heinemann is a true asset to the research centre," says Dr. Volkmar Dietz from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Chairman of the Foundation Council. "With her international experience, broad knowledge, reputation and forward-looking ideas, she will certainly lead the particle physics research field into the next exciting era. As the first woman on the Directorate, she will also make DESY history!"

Beate Heinemann is a true Hamburger, having grown up very close to DESY in Hamburg. She earned her spurs in particle physics experiments and at universities and research centres all over the world. After completing her doctorate at the University of Hamburg on an experiment at DESY's HERA accelerator, she joined the CDF experiment at Fermilab near Chicago as a scientist at the University of Liverpool before becoming a professor at the University of California Berkeley working on the ATLAS experiment, a giant particle detector at CERN in Geneva. From 2013 to 2017, she was deputy spokesperson for the ATLAS experiment. She then returned to Germany to continue her research with ATLAS as a senior scientist at DESY and professor at the University of Freiburg.

"I am very pleased that Beate Heinemann will be part of the DESY Directorate in the future," says DESY Director Helmut Dosch. "Her excellent expertise in particle physics and experience in managing large, international teams are the perfect match for the many facets of fundamental research at DESY and in the Helmholtz Association. We are proud to welcome her to the team and very much look forward to shaping the future with her."

Heinemann succeeds Joachim Mnich, who moved to the European research centre CERN as research director at the beginning of 2021, and Ties Behnke, who led the research division as interim director. At DESY, the particle physics division includes not only the particle physicists and technicians involved in the international experiments, but also theorists, the DESY IT department, the library and many service groups such as electronics development. 

"DESY is a world-class laboratory and I am delighted to take part in shaping its present and future," says Heinemann. "There are many topics and projects that are very close to my heart – from fundamental research and developments in future technologies to sustainability and diversity. The next decade offers many exciting challenges, both scientifically and socially, and I am looking forward to the decisive contributions DESY will make to these challenges." 

We talked to the new director and asked her about her plans and ideas. 

What are your plans for your new research division?

As Director, you are not only responsible for your own division, but for all of DESY. DESY as a whole is close to my heart. First of all, I think it is very important that we retain and further expands our pioneering role as a centre for fundamental research for the study of matter. 

We know that many of the major revolutionary developments and changes have come from fundamental research. That's why I think that it should continue to be the basis for research at DESY – but we also have action and a research mandate in application-oriented areas, for example climate, digitisation or health. DESY can contribute with all its research areas, for example through novel accelerator technologies, new methods in detector development or new facilities for photon science. And we must also prioritise sustainability on campus. 

Another topic that is very close to my heart, both personally and through my new office, is diversity. DESY should remain a cosmopolitan, diverse laboratory, and there is still room for improvement in many areas, for example the numer of women in management positions.

And what about your own research division?

Of course I also have ideas for particle physics, which stands on several very solid legs  at DESY: we participate in international experiments, have our own very exciting experiments on campus, a strong theory group and we are pioneers in digital transformation with our computing sector. With our cutting-edge research, we are also very attractive to young scientists who come to us from countries all over the world to do their PhDs, postdoctoral research or take on a staff position. We need to keep evolving to remain at the international forefront as well as revise our strategy for the next decade. 

In our Detector Assembly Facility here on campus, for example, we are building several central components for the upgrade of the experiments as part of the expansion of the LHC accelerator. DESY has taken on a huge responsibility – it’s important that we deliver!

But we can also be proud of the exciting experiments that we are running here at DESY in international collaboration. The ALPS II experiment will start next year. ALPS searches for dark matter with the help of elusive little particles called axions., who also play a role in several other experiments that are on DESY's wish and planning list. If they all came, which I will of course advocate, DESY would be unrivalled worldwide in the very dynamic field of axion research. The excellent infrastructure we have at DESY as a national research laboratory for particle physics plays a major role here.

We can also be very proud of our theory. It rightly has an excellent reputation worldwide, based not least on the fact that our experts cover more than 60 orders of magnitude in physics – from string theory to cosmology. With the planned Wolfgang Pauli Centre, it will be even broader and more multidisciplinary. 

In the next few years, the course will be set for the successor project to the LHC, i.e. the next large particle accelerator, whose technology and location have not yet been chosen. It is very important to me that DESY is also actively involved in the preparation of this project in order to maintain and expand its pioneering role.

These are only some of my ideas and we should always be open to new ones. We have a lot of smart and creative people here, and you never know what spectacular proposal they will come up with next. 

DESY aside - what are the things that are closest to your heart?

Above all, sustainability is very important to me. Our generation carries the responsibility now; we have to act now and think climate in everything, both in research and in the development of the DESY campus and Science City Bahrenfeld. 

Basic research is also very close to my heart because it is not only immensely interesting, but can also drive innovation. Take for example the mRNA vaccine, which is based on 20 years of basic research, or accelerators, which were developed 100 years ago in particle physics and are now used worldwide to treat tumours. 

But above all I am still driven to find out how nature works and which laws of nature underpin it. In my opinion, we are now in the most exciting time in particle physics since the structure of the atom was discovered and then understood at the beginning of the 20th century. Within about 40 years, physics was completely revolutionised. At the moment we are again entering a new energy scale, the scale of the electroweak force, which is closely linked to the Higgs particle and presents us with many questions. Studying this scale in detail now is immensely exciting and can possibly also lead to revolutionary discoveries that no one can even dream of today. 

You were born in Hamburg and also studied here. How does it feel to become the first female director at DESY?

First of all, it is a great honour for me to be the first female Director at DESY, after having taken my first career steps at DESY while at university. In general, it is very, very important to me that women have the same opportunities and find the same conditions as men do in all areas. In a modern society, we should make the most of the potential of everybody, no matter what gender they belong to, what religion they identify with or what social or ethnic background they have. 

And I have always remained connected to Hamburg: I am a die-hard HSV fan! As the eldest of three siblings, my father took me to the stadium at an early age, and even today I watch every game with him (though usually on the sofa instead of in the stadium).

This article was first published on December 7 by DESY.

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