Japanese tea culture to relax from physics

Yasmine M'hirsi
Yasmine M'hirsi Doktorandin Theoretische Physik Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät (Bild: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

In our series of 22 reports, we present a panorama of female researchers from various qualification levels and academic positions, ranging from students to W3 professors. With their individual career paths, the female researchers in STEM subjects act as role models to encourage young female researchers to pursue an academic career, giving interesting insights into their careers to date. The MINT experts also share aspects of their private lives.

Doctoral student Yasmine M’hirsi: Japanese tea culture to relax from physics

Physicist Yasmine M’hirsi was born and raised in Tunisia. At the age of 15, she moved with her parents to France and finished high school there. For her University studies, she packed her bags again and relocated to the UK where she attained her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. In the meantime, she has moved to FAU where she is pursuing a doctoral degree in Theoretical Physics. The pandemic meant that she was not able to move from Tunis, where she and her family are living again, to Erlangen, and had to start doing her research at FAU from a distance. The 24-year-old scientist speaks five languages including Spanish and Japanese. She is eager to learn German as soon as possible. But Germany will not be her last destination. She is planning an international academic career and is willing to relocate anywhere in the world.

Why I chose a STEM subject

‘When I was younger, I used to watch many TV programmes. To diversify my watching schedule my parents switched on many documentaries ranging on science. The documentary that stood out to me was about the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. The physicist talked with such eloquence about the fundamental particles that make up matter and explained how scientists tried to detect them. This immediately sparked my interest. Even though I didn’t understand most of what he was saying, I knew that these questions were worth pursuing. Luckily, my parents did not think along the lines of typical gender roles, neither pushing me towards physics nor preventing me from choosing that subject of studies. It was my own, privately driven request to become a physicist. First, I went to Wales, where I studied astrophysics at Cardiff University. I spent my Master’s year in London studying particle physics at University College London. For my PhD, I have found a great opportunity to pursue research I am passionate about in Germany. So here I am at FAU, pursuing my doctoral degree in theoretical physics.’

FAU is the best research setting for me

‘It was by attending a Loop Quantum Gravity seminar that I was referred to the group at FAU. It is a strong, active, and fairly international institute with a worldwide reputation in my area of expertise. Moreover, knowing the German excellence in research, I did not hesitate to apply – and was accepted! The city of Erlangen itself is quite small and student-friendly, being close to nature, and bigger cities like Nuremberg. FAU for me offers the best setting to do research and enjoy life at the same time.’

My daily work routine

‘Since 2020 when I started my PhD, I have been working remotely from Tunis due to the Covid pandemic. So far, my daily routine consists of reading papers, doing calculations, meeting online with my supervisor and colleagues, and attending seminars, not particularly in that order. I am busy on average for eight hours a day, but it can be more or less depending on the workload. The only thing that I am adamant about is to have Sundays off to rest and refresh before the start of the new week.’

FAU-support even from the distance

‘I am thankful to have had the support and understanding of my supervisor as I have had to start my first year abroad. Despite the pandemic, having weekly seminars and journal clubs on Zoom allowed me to participate in departmental life and feel less isolated from the rest of the group. Also, my colleagues in the Quantum Gravity group are very friendly and eager to help international members settle in Germany. Not to mention that I receive funding as I got a research assistantship contract from the Physics department.’

In my spare time …

‘… I practice the Japanese tea ceremony ’sado’, which is a great way to be present and sharpen my mind when not working. I am fascinated by the Japanese culture and Zen Buddhism.’

Yasmine M'Hirsi Doktorandin Theoretische Physik bei der Teezeremonie
Yasmine M’hirsi, PhD student Theoretical Physics Faculty of Natural Sciences (Image: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

What excites me about my scientific work

‘I am currently working in quantum gravity (QG) which is at the cutting edge of current research into theoretical physics. QG combines gravity with quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics operates on the microscopic regime, while general relativity deals with the macroscopic regime. A valid QG theory is required to understand what happens at singularities such as in black holes or the Big Bang. We have many theories of quantum gravity, such as the most famous ones, namely string theory and loop quantum gravity. At this point, the main challenge is to incorporate experiments to test their validity. This is a fascinating time for us to push our experimental boundaries and to develop exciting new tools that will undoubtedly advance our technology and benefit all of society. Although theoretical physics is – as the name says – theoretical, it is laying the foundation for new technologies and has a high impact on science in the long run, even if it is in a hundred years!’

Overcoming the hurdles

‘I have two learning disabilities, dysgraphia, which makes it difficult for me to spell and write legibly, and a space-time disorder, which makes it difficult for me to deal with space and geometry. These hurdles did not make life easier when choosing physics. Still, with the right mindset, motivation, and most importantly, the right working method, that is finding the right tools, practising and seeking help when needed, this was made possible.’

My career plans:

‘I want to finish my doctorate and continue my career in academia by becoming a postdoctoral researcher and then hopefully obtain a tenured position – maybe in Japan!’

My advice for female students considering a STEM subject:

‘If you are passionate and curious about any area in STEM, please do pursue it. Don’t be discouraged by grades or people telling you that you can’t do it. With the right plan, anything is possible, and choosing a career in STEM is great as it provides you with a great set of transferable skills that you can use in any job moving forward.’

A ‘Wow-moment’

‘Having the opportunity to speak on Tunisian national radio to talk about theoretical physics was one of the highlights of my career so far. I felt like I could finally share all the exciting things I have learnt and encourage people to engage with physics.’

A distinctive experience …

‘… was when I attended a seminar at the Isaac Newton Institute at Cambridge University and found that I was the only girl present, along with two researchers presenting their work. This was a clear gender disparity that brought forward the issue of the lack of diversity in theoretical physics. Having had this experience, I am now motivated to raise my voice and reach out to young women to spark their curiosity and hopefully help them consider a path in physics.

This article is part of the brochure “The Sky is the Limit”

Headerimage The Sky is the Limit
Brochure “The Sky is the Limit”

Brochure “The Sky is the Limit”

Diverse, inspiring and innovative, the brochure “The Sky is the Limit” introduces female researchers in STEM subjects from the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Sciences in a series of varied interviews.

Other interviews are available on the Research website.

Download the brochure “The Sky is the Limit — Female STEM scientists at FAU”

The publication is the result of collaboration between RTG 2423 FRASCAL and the Office of Equality and Diversity. Dr. Susanne Stemmler conducted the interviews.