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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

The Higgs Boson and My Mom


The Higgs boson is discovered and I am proud of my mom. My mom has worked as an administrative assistant in the Brown University Physics Department for 18 years. This morning I was sent news from Brown that Professors Landsberg, Narain, Heintz, and Cutts played important roles in the successful search for the ephemeral particle, and that Professor Guralnik was one of six originators of the theory that predicted the boson 48 years ago. I recognized their names from my mom’s work stories.

It wasn’t until I started graduate school that I appreciated what my mom does. I knew it involved typing, but I couldn’t really picture it, or maybe I didn’t take the time to picture it. But now I understand. My department’s administrative assistants help me at least once per week, whether I need help navigating my university’s byzantine structure or managing a grant. Lab technicians and undergraduate staff are also responsible for making any lab run. In short, I have benefitted massively from people who rarely get credit for what they do. Science functions because of their labor.

My mom does many things. She types and proofreads manuscripts with intricate technical formulas. She keeps tabs on research expenses. She publicizes visiting speakers. She organizes departmental events. She tracks large undergraduate classes. She Xeroxes tests. She schedules meetings. She answers the questions of undergraduates, graduates, faculty, and staff. She writes newsletters. She sorts mail. In sum, she helps professors attend to their research.

Office and administrative support staff make up approximately 20 percent of employment in private colleges and a similar employment share in state colleges. On average these employees make $33,000 per year. They do work that is essential to the functioning of science and of a university.

My mom loves her job and the people that she works with. Some of her coworkers have been instrumental in discovering the Higgs Boson. They deserve news coverage and big congratulations. Congratulations, also, to my mom, Jane Martin, and to the staff of the many universities and centers involved in this discovery.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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