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Q&A: Argonne Physicist Wins Innovator Award

A chat with scientist Kawtar Hafidi.

Whether it was beating the boys in her class at soccer in Morocco or studying so hard that professors would assign more work, Kawtar Hafidi has always been an individual

In mid-June the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Women Scientists recognized the Argonne researcher with its Innovator Award. Hafidi’s research focuses on quarks, one of the fundamental elements of matter.

"We had an outstanding group of nominees this year," said Joy Ramos, AWIS-Chicago president, in a statement. "What really stood out was Kawtar's innovative work in nuclei research, in addition to her strong commitment to mentoring and service, especially to women in science."

Patch sat down for a chat with Hafidi at her Argonne office.

Darien Patch: How did it feel to be honored with this award? 

Kawtar Hafidi: It’s really very humbling. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the email. It’s such a great honor.

When you start your career, you always dream of recognition. That’s one of the main reasons I did science. But when it’s there, it’s scary because it’s a bigger responsibility. So recognition is not an end in itself. When we are younger, we think that’s it. But we have to really lead by example—that’s very important. You have to watch for the future generations.

Patch: Is that what you mean by having a big responsibility? 

Hafidi: Yes, because you get this award and people start looking at who you are. I think you have to be more responsible, especially toward society and the younger generations.

Patch: Between your work with , as well as your work with , mentorship seems like something you take very seriously. Why do you think it’s so important?

Hafidi: For me it’s personal because I’ve always said when you do hard-core research—what I mean by hard-core, is fundamental research—it’s really driven by your curiosity. 

People tell me, “Oh, you do fundamental research, you try to understand how matter is formed, its basic particles. What’s in it for society? Why should we use taxpayers’ money to do that?”

Well, of course, with what I do, I cannot tell you now what’s the implication. For example, when Marie Curie discovered radioactivity, it wasn’t really for direct human application in society. But after that, we know all the implications of radioactivity in many aspects of our lives.

So, for me, doing research and science are two things: First, you need to have need-based research. This is what many companies and many applied labs do: [For example,] we need to get rid of our dependence on oil. We need to find renewable energies. 

But the need-based research is already limited because we have our knowledge, and we can just go and map a new area where we can improve. If you only do that kind of research, you can never advance science. 

But there is also curiosity-based research and this curiosity-based research is the one where we discover and we stumble on things that can change civilization.

I’m doing curiosity-based research. You cannot just tell me how it’s useful now to society. We never know. Otherwise, it would not be called research.

So because I do this kind of research, I always feel I don’t have a direct impact on society. I’m just after my curiosity trying to advance our understanding of things, but I don’t feel like I’m helping everyday people. So that’s why I feel something is incomplete. 

My way to directly impact society is to train the next generation of scientists. It’s really personal. I cannot be happy if I don’t do these things.

Patch: Why do you focus on mentoring women? 

Hafidi: I’m attracted to women because of, first of all, my background. I grew up in an Arab society [Morocco]. Legally, women have the same rights as men, but society-wise, they are the housewife. Things are changing, but I was always refusing that while I grew up.

When I was in grade school, if my teacher wanted to annoy me, he told me, “I’ll take you to my house and make you cook all day.” And then he started laughing. I told him, “I will never cook for a man!”

Even my dad used to tell me, “You’ll never find a husband.” [Laughs] It’s my life, really. Encouraging women, girls, that’s my life.

To my surprise, I never thought in the United States we would have to work hard to encourage more women to pursue science because although in Morocco it’s an Arab country, we have an even number of [male and female] scientists. We have a greater number relative to the U.S. 

Patch: You’re married and have a 6-year-old son. How do you balance having a family with your research? 

Hafidi: I think balance doesn’t exist. There’s only satisfaction. You try to find your own balance. You try to be satisfied with your choices.

I’m still struggling with work/life balance, but what helps me a lot is my husband. We have been married for almost 14 years, and I didn’t want to have a child until after seven years, because I wasn’t sure. I said, “I don’t want children—I want to have a successful career.”

But my husband said, “No I think it’s good to have children.” And he promised he would be the main caregiver. 

I would say 90 percent of the time he’s the caregiver, although he is a scientist [at Argonne]. He takes our son to school. He picks him up from school. He takes him to all his activities. I have to take him to his dance class on Wednesday. But I do play with him—Xbox, soccer, take him swimming—so I have a lot of fun with him. Luckily, my husband is very, very supportive. My husband even takes care of me. He takes care of the house, of the cleaning, everything.

Patch: You are incredibly lucky!

Hafidi: I know, I know! I am. It’s great. My husband is really the best thing that ever happened to me. Even in my research he sometimes helps me. He is a great guy, and I don’t think I would be that happy and that successful without him. And he is from Tunisia, so that is a credit to the Arab men. I think they are ready to be re-educated when they find the right woman. I have to give him credit. He is really a gift.

Patch: What does your son think of what you do?

Hafidi: He is amazing. He is so proud of me. When he came here and saw my picture in the entrance [of the building where I work], he said “Mommy, your picture! Why?” I told him, “Because I got an award.” He told me, “Oh, Mommy I’m so proud of you. Wow, Mommy, you’re so smart.” That’s so, so nice.

Patch: Does he have any proclivity for science?

Hafidi: He goes to Montessori school. He reads already. He writes. Of course he’s very curious. He can tell you the names of all the dinosaurs from all eras. All countries—he knows the flags, the continents, the capitals. He has a memory like hell. He knows English, French, Arabic, Spanish. He’s a little Kawtar, a little me. It’s amazing to see.

He says he wants to be the first Muslim American president of the United States. He wants to go to Harvard already. He is amazing. I always thought the best gift I would give him is to have him born in the United States. This country is great.

Patch: Why did you move to the U.S.?

Hafidi: My Ph.D. [in France] was three years, and one year I went to Virginia and did my research there because they have a high-energy accelerator unique in the world. This is when I was introduced to America.

I was fascinated with this country. When I came back [to France], I was telling everyone, “I want to go back there.”

You know, it’s very interesting. When I was still in Morocco, I was a little bit out of the box, especially for a girl. Everybody around me was studying to get a degree and to get a job. I was by myself reading about the Nobel prizes and dreaming. The gap between me and others was so large. I was not studying for a degree. I was really studying to learn.

I love this country because it respects and encourages individuals. Of course, teamwork is important, but individual genius, I believe, is most important. Great individuals can make a difference. They can lead people.

This country gave me so much. No country gave me a home and a future like America. I really owe it a lot, and I am ready to do everything for this country. This is my country—I got to choose it, while the other one, I was just born there.

Michelle Sosa April 21, 2012 at 10:36 AM
Oh my! This is awesome Kawtar! Congratulations!

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