The Marie Curie Fellowship at CERN: A Personal Account

A personal account of a Malaysian working at the site of the world’s largest particle physics laboratory.

by Yi Ling Hwong.

Photo by CERN©

It was a hot and humid day in the peak of summer in July 2008. I was in a room somewhere inside CERN, too early in the morning, and too casually dressed for an interview of a job that I was dying to have. There were around fifteen other people in the room, a few of them in shorts and t-shirts, a few in jeans, one in a   suit, but all wearing the same nervous expression. We were waiting for our turns to be called into the interview room and nobody was in a hurry to break the ice nor the tension in the air.
“Introduce yourselves to each other, make small talk! Go on! Don’t worry. It’s going to be a pretty casual interview!” Mr. Hegarty was his usual warm and encouraging self.

He left the room, we looked at each other and silence ensued.

“Man, it’s going to be a long day.” I remember thinking to myself.

After a couple of minutes of painful silence and awkward smiles, one of us finally decided that the “heat” was too much to bear and so he got up to open the windows. Somewhat magically, the cool morning breeze made everyone relax. We loosened up and started talking. The tension in the air was finally broken when someone decided to throw in a joke about the guy in the suit.

So how did I get there? One wonders.

It was a few months back, I was at the end of my Masters’ thesis preparation under the technical student contract, and was faced with the inevitable question that we’ve all asked ourselves at some point in our lives: “So now what? Where do I go from here?” All I knew was that I loved this place, from its unique culture, enriching environment, down to its quirky people and temperamental coffee machines. I knew there was still a lot to be discovered of this place, and I didn’t want to leave.

I remembered a conversation I had with a friend a while ago. He has been around for quite some time and was one of the happiest people I know at CERN. So naturally I had to know his secret. He told me about the Marie Curie Fellowship program and told me that I must give it a try. I did some research about the program, initially with the mild curiosity to find out the story behind its quasi-feminist name, but the more I read, the more convinced I became – this is it. This is exactly where I want myself to be. Well, maybe not in the waiting room on that interview day, but that was just the comedic prelude that every story must have.

That was all more than three years ago. In the end the waiting room story had a happy ending. I got the job, and am immensely grateful with how things turned out to be.

The Marie Curie Actions is a Program funded by the European Commission with the aim of promoting Research and Technological Developments. It provides valuable research experience for researchers of any age and nationality by giving them the opportunity to spend between three months to three years in another country as part of an international research project. The open-to-all-nationalities policy of the Program ensures that I — coming from Malaysia, which is not a member state of CERN – was able to work at the institute as a researcher.

CERN has been hosting a number of Marie Curie researcher positions under the program since 2004. The fellowship program emphasizes the training and career development of its researchers and has built up a training network which expands over a wide range of disciplines.

From the highly successful Sixth Framework Programme, the Marie Curie Actions has gone on to establish the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) which will run from 2007 to 2013. The people-oriented FP7 will continue its training oriented projects, with special measures to encourage and support the early stages of a researcher’s scientific career. There are several programs running under the FP7 for researchers from all over the world.

The program which I am under is called ACEOLE, an acronym which doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue but as our director of ACEOLE once said to us – we get the first hit in Google search. And this, in the world of scientists and geeks, is no easy feat.

During the three years of being an ACEOLE fellow, I was given the opportunity to lead, to coordinate, to take initiative, to teach and to learn. Instead of being given orders or told what to do, I was encouraged to expand my potential and manage my own goals. And the best thing? There were readily available physical facilities and sufficient financial support for me to achieve them.

At a conference for poster presentation.

Whether was it by attending scientific conferences or training in a foreign country, writing and presenting a paper, initiating collaborations with a partner institute, or by being a lab instructor in an international school, I was constantly encouraged to stretch my boundaries. I got to know people from all over the world and established contacts with different scientific institutes. I was challenged to think, to wonder, to doubt and to explore, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my career.

Now when I look back on that fateful summer day, the humid waiting room and the anticipation of the unknown, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had known the impact that this decision would have on my life later on. All I remember was that I was nervous, uncertain and hopeful all at once, bundled with plenty of perspiration, an abundant of running thoughts, and a pair of shaking knees.

When Mr. Hegarty called out my name and I was following him down the stairs, he turned around and grinned at me, “So, you ready for this?”

I straightened my thoughts and put on my brightest smile, “Yes I am!”

And that, was the best answer I have ever given.

A video clip of the Marie Curie fellowship program at CERN, featuring the ACEOLE fellows is available at the following link:
http://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/1379874

About the author:

Yi Ling Hwong can be contacted at yilinghwong[at]scientificmalaysian.com