Advice to Women in STEM: Mariel Pettee

Mariel Pettee: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Mariel Pettee never decided to be one thing or another. She simultaneously researches the Higgs-Boson particle and finds the time to choreograph a musical about Elon Musk and the colonization of Mars. “I [thought] that when I got to college,” she said, “maybe one of those two interests would reveal itself to be more important in my life. I think instead I just found that I was able to charge ahead and do both as much as I wanted to.” 

While working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, Mariel studies a particle called the Higgs-Boson, or the God Particle, which is part of a much larger explanation of why particles have mass. Her research marks the end of an era in modern physics.  The discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle at CERN was the final piece in the puzzle of the Standard Model of Particle Physics –– a theory developed in the 1960s. All the work that Mariel has done at CERN has supported this theory for how particles should behave. However, she is looking for something that doesn’t make sense. “The standard model doesn’t describe everything in the universe. It’s not a complete theory. It doesn’t say anything about gravity, for one, which clearly exists. There’s also a big problem in this stuff called dark matter and dark energy that our astronomy friends have seen looking out at the universe.” Since the Standard Model isn’t enough to completely explain the behavior of mass and energy in the universe, Mariel is looking for something that doesn’t line up in her data and that would give physicists something to pursue next.

When she’s not working at the forefront of particle physics research, Mariel also finds outlets to combine her passions for physics and dance through research using artificial intelligence. What was born from a place of curiosity, she says, just “wanting to see what AI would do if I trained it to generate dance,” has now evolved into much larger work. She now collaborates with scientists, artists, and dancers, leading an independent team that investigates the analysis and generation of choreography by AI. Mariel continues to be passionate about this field, saying “it’s opened up a whole new avenue of research that I’m really excited about.”

Her love of performance isn’t only reflected in her research, but in many independent projects as well. When she was an undergraduate student, Pettee describes being in rehearsals from six to ten pm, only to leave afterwards to work on her problem sets deep into the night. Mariel’s passion for the arts seeps through even her experiences as a teacher: “I was (…) trying to connect with my students sort of like I was connecting to an audience,” she said. For her, it was through teaching that she first saw that overlap, and from there on these the sciences and the performing arts became two sides of the same coin. From focusing her side projects on the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and dance to choreographing the latest – Elon Musk related – musicals at the Yale Cabaret.

Mariel’s passion for performance has led her to participate in different outreach programs throughout her career. She fondly remembers a physics slam – Windy City Physics Slam – in which physicists from all over the world had the chance to give 10-minute talks about their research in whatever format they desired. These enthusiastic presentations were promptly followed by kids running around the stage, attempting to help convey the complexities of particle physics. She notes that these events turned into spaces for audiences – both young and old – to ask playful questions and become involved in topics that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them. Currently, Mariel also serves as a Yale Women in Physics Mentor – only one of the multiple ways in which she has chipped in her grain of sand to make STEM a more accessible field for women everywhere.

Mariel Pettee has led an awe-inspiring career in more ways than one. But even more admirable than her cutting-edge research and performances is her warm personality, which shines through her words and work. She expressed the importance of not second-guessing yourself constantly and asking for help when necessary. In her own words, “Don’t count yourself out.” For many, following aspirations in the sciences can seem like a far-away dream. But every day, women like Mariel Pettee show that it is possible, and that one doesn’t necessarily have to put other passions away in order to do so.