Atom-smashing CERN institute hires first female chief

07 November 2014 -


Franco-Swiss outfit behind Large Hadron Collider has chosen new leader to oversee crucial restart

Jermaine Haughton

Italian physicist Dr Fabiola Gianotti has been lined up as the first woman to run world-leading scientific research base CERN. Set to start her five-year mandate on 1 January 2016, Gianotti has been selected as director-general of the body’s particle physics research centre, where the famous Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is based.

Chosen by the CERN Council, Gianotti will lead up to 10,000 scientists towards further discoveries about the origins of the universe. Complete with previous experience at CERN that goes all the way back to 1987 – while she took her University of Milan doctorate – the 52-year-old will replace incumbent Dr Rolf Heuer, who steered the centre through what was an initially troubled launch for the LHC.

Ranked fifth in Time magazine’s 2012 Personality of the Year league, and as one of Forbes’ Top 100 Most Influential Women the following year, Gianotti says she is delighted to be hired into the role. “It is a great honour and responsibility for me to be selected as the next CERN director-general following 15 outstanding predecessors,” she said.

“CERN is a centre of scientific excellence, and a source of pride and inspiration for physicists from all over the world. CERN is also a cradle for technology and innovation, a fount of knowledge and education, and a shining, concrete example of worldwide scientific cooperation and peace. It is the combination of these four assets that renders CERN so unique: a place that makes better scientists and better people. I will fully engage myself to maintain CERN’s excellence in all its attributes, with the help of everybody, including CERN Council, staff and users from all over the world.”

A recipient of many awards, Gianotti has a glittering CV. Notably, she coordinated the ATLAS experiment collaboration for four years up to February 2013, which was later recognised in the Nobel Prize given to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for their long-awaited discovery of the so-called Higgs boson “God particle”.

CERN Council president Agnieszka Zalewska said: “We were extremely impressed with all three candidates put forward by the search committee. It was Dr Gianotti’s vision for CERN’s future as a world-leading accelerator laboratory – coupled with her in-depth knowledge of both CERN and the field of experimental particle physics – that led us to this outcome. I would like to thank all the candidates for giving the Council such a hard decision to make, and the search committee for all its hard work over recent months.”

Heuer added: “Fabiola Gianotti is an excellent choice to be my successor. It has been a pleasure to work with her for many years. I look forward to continuing to work with her through the transition year of 2015, and am confident that CERN will be in very good hands.”

Restarting the LHC will be one of the new director-general’s main challenges, as it sets its sights on going operational with twice the power from spring 2015. The LHC functions by accelerating particles round a circular tunnel close to the speed of light, whereby they crash together to create billions of tiny “big bangs”. As well as picking up hints from these experiments about the origins of the universe, scientists are also looking into other scientific questions, such as the nature of dark matter in space.

In the meantime, as well as smashing atoms, CERN has certainly smashed a few gender barriers in the appointment of senior leadership.

For more hints on succession planning, pick up this CMI Checklist guide Organisational Essentials.

Image of Dr Fabiola Gianotti courtesy of Claudia Marcelloni/CERN.

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