Carola Dobrigkeit: Unveiling Cosmic Rays from Brazil

This article is part of the “Building from Diversity” project.

Written by Daniela Zigante, Journalist of the CTAndo Group, Insitute of Physics of São Carlos, University of São Paulo (Brazil)


Carola Dobrigkeit Chinellato, born in 1952, moved to Brazil from Germany as a child. She grew up in Campinas, Brazil, and was just 15 years old when her curiosity for physics was piqued. Inspired by a teacher who presented her with the challenging task of teaching her classmates who had failed final exams, Carola’s fascination with physics and teaching grew. During her school vacations, she dedicated her time to providing physics tutoring to her classmates, a venture that not only satisfied her love for the subject but also helped her earn some extra money.



Carola Dobrigkeit at University of Campinas (Unicamp).

In considering her professional choices, she says “When you’re 15, you have no idea what you will do. You don’t have the imagination to know what a physicist does, mainly because in high school the teaching of physics is very basic. The opportunities I had led me to choose teaching and physics as a profession.”


It was during this period that Carola made the pivotal decision to pursue physics at the University of Campinas (Unicamp). At the age of 21, she achieved a significant milestone by becoming the youngest woman to hold a position at the Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics within the Department of Cosmic Rays and Chronology at Unicamp. Her academic journey led her to a particular interest in the field of matter structure, a subject she explored under the mentorship of César Lattes, a highly respected Brazilian physicist known for his contributions to cosmic-ray physics. César Lattes played a pivotal role in the discovery of the pion (known as pi meson at that time) in 1947, a groundbreaking achievement that led to the Nobel Prize in Physics for Cecil Frank Powell [1]. It was under Lattes’ guidance that she took her initial steps into the world of cosmic-ray research.


In 1974, she published as co-author a paper in collaboration between Brazil and Japan. This research focused on the detection of cosmic rays in the high-altitude region of Chacaltaya, nestled in the Bolivian Andes [2]. In 1982, Carola achieved her PhD, which focused on estimating the absolute vertical flux of the electromagnetic component of cosmic radiation at Chacaltaya. This estimation was based on meticulous measurements and an in-depth analysis of electromagnetic cascades detected in photoemulsion chambers and lead.


In the 1980s, as a part of the Pamir, Mt. Fuji, and Chacaltaya Collaborations, she participated in numerous investigations that delved into the intriguing realm of nuclear interactions. These studies harnessed the power of joint emulsion chambers in mountain-based experiments and significantly expanded our comprehension of how cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s atmosphere [3] [4].


Carola further advanced her academic journey with two postdoctoral studies in Germany. Her first postdoctoral stint took place at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg in 1989, where she engaged in research and work related to the physics of elementary particles and fields. Following that, in 1996, she embarked on her second postdoctoral experience at Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe, where she continued her in-depth exploration of the fascinating world of elementary particles and fields. Later, Carola became an integral member of the Pierre Auger Collaboration at its inception, contributing to its construction and operation across various working groups. The Pierre Auger Observatory measures extremely high-energy cosmic rays, the parent population of the gamma rays observed by the CTAO.


While Carola’s association with Unicamp as a professor dates back to 1974, she obtained the status of a full professor in 2016. Reflecting on this milestone, Carola says, “Our institute went many years without having a female full professor. Many female colleagues asked me to participate in the competition, as  a way to pave the path for women in physics at Unicamp.”



Carola Dobrigkeit and Cesar Lattes in 1999. Credit: Unicamp.

It was a crucial moment in her career when she transitioned from student to colleague of her mentor, César Lattes. She fondly remembers one instance, in 1974, at the very beginning of her career “Professor Lattes  invited me to teach his classes. He was present in the room and in each one I learned new things, but it was also a great challenge. Teaching students is one thing, but teaching with Professor Lattes watching is another,” she recalls.


In one of these classes, the young teacher made a deduction on the board and Professor Lattes said that that wasn’t the best way to deduce and asked her to do it in another way. “The class collapsed. I erased it and started again. I deduced everything he had asked me for and when I finished, he said: ‘I think your way is better.’ The class laughed and was very positive in terms of learning. I was able to show that there are several ways to arrive at a result,” she says.


Professor Carola Dobrigkeit is still showing us that there is more than one way to obtain a result, both in life and in work. Her distinguished career is a testament to her unwavering determination and boundless passion for unravelling the Universe’s secrets. Her extensive contributions to high-energy cosmic rays and particle physics [5] have not only pushed the frontiers of human understanding but have also broken down barriers related to gender in the scientific realm. Carola Dobrigkeit’s work serves as a powerful reminder of humanity’s innate curiosity and our relentless pursuit of knowledge about the enigmatic cosmic wonders that encompass our planet.



Article reviewed by Cibelle Celestino Silva, Institute of Physics of São Carlos, University of São Paulo (Brazil).