Physicist, Research Scientist, Professor, Columbia University, New York City

The Lancelot M. Berkeley − New York Community Trust Prize for Meritorious Work in Astronomy is awarded annually for highly meritorious work in advancing the science of astronomy during the previous year. The nominees and previous winners have mostly been men focusing on enabling understanding of solar activity, advancing the field of cosmology, discovery of new worlds and determining the extent of life in our galaxy. The winner of the 2019 prize is our WOW WOMAN, Elena Aprile. Her contribution to astronomy is pretty cool and spans multiple countries and galaxies. Elena is aiming to prove what scientists, for over 100 years, have suspected - the ‘empty’ space between stars and other visible objects in our Universe is probably not empty and much or even most of the matter in our galaxy and others is dark matter.

What is dark matter? Dark matter is a name we give as a proxy to indicate stuff we can't see in the universe. We know this "stuff" is gravitationally affecting the universe, hence we can tell it's out there, but it's not visible to us. When we look out into space, everything we see (including everything on our own planet), is made up of regular kind of matter. This amounts to less than five percent. In contrast, 25% of the universe is in the form of dark matter.  It is a big challenge for the scientific community, to try to figure out what it is, how to detect it and how to test this "stuff".

With an undergraduate degree in physics from Naples, and a PhD from University of Geneva, Elena Aprile founded the XENON Dark Matter Collaboration in 2002 and has served as its scientific spokesperson ever since.

Our WOW Woman, Elena Aprile, took on this challenge head on 15 years ago, when she designed an experiment that would be very sensitive in the search for dark matter. With her experience gained from working with liquid xenon gamma ray detectors for NASA, Professor Aprile started a crusade that has almost circled the globe – the XENON project – a consortium of about 165 scientists in multiple centres around the world focused on finding the elusive WIMP. The idea is to detect these WIMPs as they collide with liquid xenon atoms in detectors that are operated deep underground to minimise noise from cosmic radiation. 

The WIMP – the ‘weakly interacting massive particle’ – is a theoretical elementary particle of dark matter that does not interact with strong forces, such as electromagnetic forces, but only weakly, through gravity and the weak nuclear force. As well, to fulfill some of the observed effects of dark matter, the particle must have a very large mass compared with other subatomic particles. This is what makes the WIMP a WIMP – big mass, weak interaction. Because it only very weakly interacts, a very sensitive detector must be designed if WIMP interactions are to be picked up as they pass through.

Professor Aprile designed the 3500 kg (7716 lbs) liquid xenon detector, has been the principal investigator on more than 20 research grants worth nearly $29 million over the last three decades and holds a patent for a vacuum ultraviolet light source.

For those who want to get more in-depth knowledge of this incredible endeavour, check out this detailed presentation by Ms. Aprile, an overview of the XENON detection principle, and get a deeper understanding from browsing her multiple publications.

1. Name.

Elena Aprile. 

2. Where is your hometown?

Born in Milan. Currently living in Brooklyn, New York. 

3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?

I am a professor of physics /Scientist/ experimentalist.

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career wise)? What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of? 

It was and still is a roller coaster with many obstacles. But the more obstacles I encounter, the more I get determined to overcome them.

"...the more obstacles I     encounter,       the more I get determined to overcome them..."

On a personal level, I am proud to have been able to have a "life" outside my lab, raising two daughters with a supportive husband who always inspired me.

As a scientist, I am proud of my experiments but also of the students and post-docs who worked with me. Their successes in life and career make me particularly proud. It is a long list of lives which I have touched and influenced in a positive way. 

5. What did you study in school?


I hold Laurea in Physics (Magna Cum Laude), Universita degli Studi, Naples, Italy and a Ph.D. in Physics from University of Geneva, Switzerland. Currently Professor at Columbia University with a laboratory on Columbia University campus.

6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?

As a 20-year old I felt oppressed by the limits of my family and my social circle. I did not know that I would one day become a scientist, but I knew that I wanted to get out of the circle I was in. Excelling in my studies at the university became my focus and an escape vehicle. When my application for a summer student fellowship at CERN was accepted, the trip to Geneva became a one way trip.

7. What was your biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?

Not realizing early enough that putting my research first would have endangered my marriage.

8. Advice for other women?

Follow your instinct and passion but do all that is possible to realize yourself as a woman and a mother. My two daughters are the best of my accomplishments.

9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it for "feminist values"?

It is up to us to fight for values we believe in, despite the current political climate.

10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?

I feel tallest in my lab especially when I am able to excite young scientists in pursuing new measurements and in obtaining new insights from experiments. Mentoring and supporting careers of generation after generation of graduate students and postdocs remain some of my highest satisfactions.

11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

Cooking for my family or friends and transmitting to my daughters the traditions my mother passed on to me.

12. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?

I want to learn to listen more and live a more peaceful life.

13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?

The fear of being alone.

14. Anything you'd do differently if you had another go at life?

Not take love for granted.

15. What inspires you?

Nature and its immense diversity.

16. What are you hopeful about?

Finding an answer to the big question of what is dark matter.

17. What are some ingredients to a good life?

Doing work which you don't get bored with, which is well-paid but also leaves you time to fulfill other roles and ambitions.

18. What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

To do just what I did: dream high but study and work hard to realize your dreams.

19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)

I still find no time for books but keep a big pile with intention to find time for some, some day.

20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description?

Laura Baudis, my good friend and colleague at University of Zurich, comes to mind.Her interests are in astroparticle physics and cosmology, in particular in the fields of direct dark matter detection and neutrino physics. 

Another WOW WOMAN is my friend at Caltech, Maria Spiropulu. She is a world renowned experimental particle physics researcher and a notable mentor of many graduate and undergraduate students. She has been working on advanced data technologies with an eye on using AI methods to enable and accelerate scientific discovery. She initiated a collaboration with leading quantum computation researchers targeting the embedding of physics problems onto the D-Wave quantum annealer. 

21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?

My Columbia University faculty page, my facebook, twitter our XENON experiment page