Today at Berkeley Lab

In Life as in Tennis, ‘Just Relax and Play Your Game,’ says Roe

— by Keri Troutman


Natalie Roe, director of Berkeley Lab’s Physics Division, has been involved in a lot of exciting research since she came here as a postdoc in 1989—from collider experiments at Fermilab in her early years to her more recent cosmology research and role in the upgrade of the instrumentation for the Baryonic Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) in New Mexico.

It seems only fitting that one of Roe’s primary passions outside of work, tennis, also involves a bit of physics. Though she learned to play as a child, it wasn’t until 15 years ago that Roe took it up again. Since then, tennis has become an important and regular part of her life. She plays on various United States Tennis Association (USTA) teams—singles, doubles, mixed-level groups—and practices two or three times per week. One of her teams made it all the way to the sectionals, one level below nationals.

“When you’re in those competitions, it’s a whole different experience from recreational tennis,” says Roe. “You learn something about your own ability to perform under pressure, and you learn that you can get better at that.”

Roe describes tennis as a “very psychological game,” and stresses the importance of not letting your opponents rattle you. When she first started playing on USTA teams, her game would go down several notches just because she’d be so nervous under pressure.

“They say ‘just relax and play your game,’ which is easy to say and hard to do,” she explains. “It’s a good metaphor for life in some ways.”

Looking for a sport that she could play throughout life, Roe says was inspired by her mom, who still plays tennis several times a week in her 80s. Joining the Chabot Canyon Raquet Club has been a great outlet for many reasons aside from the exercise, says Roe.

“You really have to leave your work troubles and everything that’s distracting you behind when you get on the court because you just have to focus on the ball,” she says. “It takes you out of your everyday worries.”

Being one of just a few women scientists in the Physics Division, Roe has also enjoyed the chance to meet a lot of interesting women from diverse backgrounds through tennis, she says. It’s a social game and an outlet that allows her to work off the day’s stress.

Roe has applied her physics background to tennis in a few instances. Fellow Chabot tennis club member and Today at Berkeley Lab Editor Lyn Hunter recalls taking a tennis clinic with Roe in which she made sure fellow members understood the correct mathematical terminology for their sport. “The instructor told us we could exponentially increase the variety of our serves by standing at different positions along the base line,” says Hunter. “Natalie politely corrected the instructor, saying it actually increases the variety geometrically, not exponentially.”

Roe and her husband also recently took a group of tennis club members to see the documentary “Particle Fever,” which chronicles the launch of the Large Hadron Collider. Afterwards, over pizza and beer, Roe explained the science behind the film and the Lab’s role in the experiment. “It was a real treat for us non-scientists,” says Hunter. “And it helped us understand this monumental event.”