María del Pilar Castro
The first woman to run the UNAM Institute of Nuclear Sciences. (Photo: Courtesy of María del Pilar Carreón)

Her friends call her Pili, and she was born in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. She addresses people formally, as is customary there at the border. She’s a 54-year-old woman who’s never denied her roots, with one exception. She doesn’t like Norteña music, preferring Baroque instead.

Her name is María del Pilar Carreón Castro, and she’s the first woman to run the Institute of Nuclear Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Chemistry is in her bones. At the age of 15, she was already showcasing her talent for research, when she would make liquid mixtures from the cupboard in her family’s kitchen just to see what would happen.

And she’s never looked back, still maintaining that curiosity. She says that she’s never stopped studying. At the age of five, she came with her family to the country’s capital and doesn’t mind being considered a “chilanga” (someone from Mexico City).

Her father was a journalist and her mother a housewife. Pili is the eldest of four siblings, three sisters and one brother: Margarita’s a business administrator, Fernando’s a mechanical engineer and María del Carmen, the youngest, is a lawyer.

She studied at Junior High School Number 34 and then at the College of Science and Humanities (CCH), South campus, nestled in Pedregal de San Ángel, a stone’s throw away from what would later become her promised land, the university campus.

When she got into the Faculty of Chemistry to study chemistry, they hazed her by whistling as she crossed the famous courtyard, better known as the catwalk.

It’s still a faculty custom that whoever crosses that courtyard located between the dog kennel (that’s what they call building C where the newcomer’s classrooms are located) and building B (where the organic chemistry laboratories are found), receives one of those whistles, and yes, it’s fair, because it applies to both men and women.

That’s where she showed what she was made of and made very clear that she deserved a place in the major leagues of chemistry.

Suffice to say she never failed a subject and finished her degree with an average of over 9.5.

After finishing her master’s and PhD at the UNAM, she then crossed the pond and did her post-doctorate in Strasbourg, France, together with Víctor Manuel Velázquez Aguilar, who’s a physicist and professor at the UNAM Faculty of Sciences as well as being her husband, with whom she shares not just scientific interests, but also her main project, her only daughter Ana, 22, who’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in Literature in no less than the Sorbonne in Paris.

Pili entered the Institute of Nuclear Sciences to do her community service, so she’s known the place since she was a student. She says it’s a place where you can find everything: physicists, chemists, and even mathematicians, who do interdisciplinary research on properties of matter.

It was there, once again, where she demonstrated her exceptional scientific talent and began to climb the institutional ladder, from teaching coordinator to becoming the first ever woman in charge of the Institute.

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Talking to “Mr. Rector”

She was appointed on September 4, and Pili excitedly tells us how she found out the news.

The rector, or rather, Mr. Rector, as Pili still calls him, called her cellphone and said: “Doctor Carreón?”

Pili replied: “Yes, at your service”.

–This is Enrique Graue.

–Mr. Rector!

–The chair of the Board of Governors has just informed me that you’ve been appointed as the new director of Nuclear Sciences. Allow me to congratulate you on this well-deserved achievement. You have my full support and I’m sure that you’ll play an excellent role. Whatever you need, I’m at your service.

–Yes, Mr. Rector. Thank you very much, Mr. Rector.

Then Graue, with a firm but kind voice said: “I’m just going to ask you a favor”.

–“Yes, Mr. Rector”, replied Pili.

–Don’t call me Mr. Rector, call me Enrique.

Which, to date, is difficult for her, because she’s from Juárez and was taught from a young age to only address people formally.

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Export-quality science

Pili’s a bright spark and although the UNAM isn’t operating at 100% due to the current health emergency, she has a lot of energy and is very clear on the objectives of the Institute.

“We’ll continue collaborating with CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), where we’re working on the famous Higgs boson project; we’ve made an important contribution with a series of detectors that are currently being used,” she says.

Pili also says that she intends to continue supporting researchers from the Institute who’re involved in the Mission to Mars project, in collaboration with NASA.

“We’re also developing new materials that can have applications in clean energy, specifically in photovoltaic cells,” she says.

As they say in Juárez, Pili is a “mujerón” (an outstanding woman), not like those who star in Mexican ballads, but in the epics already being recorded in history of science books in Mexico.