"I was able to share the family work"

Ruth Durrer has reconciled an academic career with a family life

Ruth Durrer was the first woman to take an assistant professorship in theoretical physics at the University of Zurich. Almost 30 years have passed since this appointment, 30 years in which Ruth Durrer has left her mark on her field - cosmology and astrophysics - as a professor. Despite her personal success, the 63-year-old researcher cautions: "Women's careers in science are still far from being evident."

Prof. Ruth Durrer, cosmologist and astrophysicist at the University of Geneva.
Image: Privat

On 7 February 1971, Swiss men approved women's voting rights in a federal referendum. The decision was taken by a clear two-thirds majority, which at the same time meant that one in three men still considered it unnecessary to grant full citizenship rights to their wives, mothers and daughters. Among the cantons that rejected the reform was Obwalden. That was exactly where 13-year-old Ruth Durrer lived at the time in the municipality of Kerns. Her father was a carpenter and later sold insurances, her mother worked in a factory.

As unimaginable as the moon landing

For her parents it was unimaginable that their daughter would one day study, probably as unimaginable as it was for Ruth Durrer's grandfather that people would land on the moon and who was convinced that the 1969 moon landing had been invented in Hollywood studios. But the moon landing had actually happened, and Ruth Durrer was to start her physics studies at the University of Zurich a few years later. She was to obtain a doctorate. She was to do research in Great Britain and the USA. Finally, in 1995, she was to move to the University of Geneva as full professor.

There were various reasons why Ruth Durrer succeeded in making the leap into science, which was generally not open to girls at the time: The fascination for the world of atoms that gripped Ruth Durrer at an early age. The encouragement from the mathematics and physics teacher. But also the willingness to take the detour via the teacher training seminar because the direct path to university via the high school was blocked. And besides all that, there was a role model: the physicist Verena Meyer had risen to become the first female rector of the University of Zurich in 1982. "She was one of the pioneers who had fought her way into an academic career," Ruth Durrer remembers.

Career and family

Verena Meyer came from an academic family, and she had foregone a family for her career. Ruth Durrer came from a working-class family, and she did not want to sacrifice the family for her academic ambitions. That was the plan, and it worked: While the up-and-coming scientist was writing her doctoral thesis in the 1980s, in which she developed cosmological models for the origin of the universe in the light of general relativity, she gave birth to two boys, who were later followed by a girl. "This balancing act was only possible thanks to the support of my husband," Ruth Durrer recalls. "I was able to share the big task of family work with him."

She was to succeed in the feat of reconciling science and family in the years that followed, when she taught and researched as a cosmologist and astrophysicist first in Zurich and later in Geneva. Today she can look back on 216 scientific publications, the complexity of which the layperson can at best guess at. "One of the main interests of my work is to understand what the electromagnetic waves we receive from space tell us about the past of the universe," says Ruth Durrer. "To interpret the waves correctly, you have to take into account that they are deflected by galaxies on their way to us." Ruth Durrer presented a comprehensive insight into her field of research in 2008 under the title 'The Cosmic Microwave Background'. The highly acclaimed publication illuminated the current state of research on cosmic background radiation, which gives us an insight into the early days of the universe after the Big Bang (see video).

Cooperation instead of competition

As an experienced university teacher, Ruth Durrer is herself a role model for young academics today. She has supervised 17 doctoral students over the years. Currently, three doctoral students are working under her supervision. That is a snapshot, because she prefers female applicants if they have the same qualifications, says the professor. An important concern for her, she says, is to create a "women-friendly" climate at the university. "By that I mean an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual help. That is more effective than super-competitive groups in which everyone wants to shine with their ideas and push themselves forward as first author in scientific publications."

Since Ruth Durrer's student days, women's interest in physics and other scientific subjects has increased, but still lags behind that of men. An obstacle to women careers, says Ruth Durrer, is that a professorship today is only reached at the age of 35 to 45 - and thus usually too late for women who want to establish themselves in the profession and find a permanent place of residence before starting a family. However, Ruth Durrer is hopeful about the self-confidence and eloquence with which young women today generally present themselves when they apply for a professorship, for example. "This is very important, because for a long time women were underestimated and men were overestimated, especially at the beginning of an academic career. Here we are a step ahead today."

Author: Benedikt Vogel

Portrait #1 of Women in science in the fields of MAP (2021)

Ruth Durrer (UniGE) presents her book "The Cosmic Microwave Background".

Categories

  • Cosmology
  • Theoretical Physics