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Empowering women through data

Why in-depth understanding of data is key to everything

Elina Berglund
Elina Berglund

I’ve always loved numbers, mathematical formulas and seeing connections and patterns in data since I was a little girl. I guess there was no surprise to my parents when I decided to study physics and eventually continue with a PhD in particle physics at the CERN laboratory.

Particle physicists must apply smart techniques in how to make use of advanced statistical programming tools to extract the very small signal of interest compared to all the noise from the particle collisions. The signal of interest for me, when I continued doing research at CERN after my PhD, was the Higgs boson. The Higgs particle was the only missing piece of the puzzle in mapping out the standard model of particle physics that describes the most fundamental building blocks of our universe.

It was Summer of 2012 when we finally had enough data to either rule out or confirm the existence of the Higgs boson. At the moment of unveiling the analysis, a few of us had gone to the CERN cafeteria to take a sneak peak before presenting the results to the entire team. The Higgs boson was there and it was so beautifully obvious. Some of us then stayed at CERN that entire night to write up the paper to have it ready for the next day. I don’t think something will ever beat that feeling when I biked home in the summer morning. We didn’t know it then, but we suspected it, that this discovery would lead to a Nobel prize in physics, which happened the following year.

After the Higgs discovery I started questioning what to do next. The experiment was shutting down for a couple of years for an upgrade, and after that, would I ever be able to experience something this great again in particle physics? A month after the Higgs discovery it was also time for my wedding. The honeymoon that followed gave room for reflection for the first time in awhile. My husband and I knew that we wanted to get pregnant in a year or two and I had therefore stopped using hormonal birth control to give my body a chance to get back to normal first. In my search for a natural birth control method I found out that the body temperature changes throughout the menstrual cycle, something known for long and well researched. I started analysing my own temperature, applying my statistical knowledge from particle physics, to detect ovulation and pinpoint the fertile days.

I got more and more obsessed with the data and learning more about my body. I of course showed my data to my colleagues at CERN and some of the female colleagues had also started measuring their temperature in the morning so I could analyse it and inform them of their fertility. My husband, also a physicist, suggested that we make my fertility algorithm into an app, such that all couples could benefit from our innovation. I thought that this was a really great idea and I also wanted to learn how to code an app.

I locked myself in our apartment for about a year to finish developing the algorithm and what is now known as the Natural Cycles app. One appealing aspect of it for me was that Natural Cycles would have an impact on people’s (women’s!) lives from the first day. Studies have shown that women in the western world have become more and more aware of how using hormonal birth control impacts their health and thus often quit using birth control altogether. We realized that we could help these women.

When following up with our very first users I quickly realized that it wasn’t only me, or scientists in general, who felt empowered by having a full understanding and control of their body. Topics such as fertility, PMS and menstruation have been taboo for so long. If we can fully understand our bodies, then we can make educated choices based on this information. The feedback we get from our users is rarely about the app itself, but the women rather describe how the Natural Cycles has made them understand their bodies and how that empowers them. Seeing how my innovation has changed women’s lives for the better, both empowers me and humbles me at the same time.

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