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Being a woman made it more challenging to pursue my dreams, says Indian scientist at CERN (downtoearth)

Archana Sharma, a Senior Scientist at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, is the only Indian scientist who was involved in the path-breaking discovery of Higgs Boson particle in 2012. Her journey from Jhansi to CERN, the Mecca of Particle Physics, has been remarkable and a story of inspiration for many aspiring Indian scientists. Ms. Sharma finished her post-graduation from the Banaras Hindu University and received her doctorate from Delhi University after which she moved to Geneva for her post doctoral research. Author and co-author of over 600 publications, Ms. Sharma is invited regularly for talks in international conferences and public addresses in various science and technology events. Recently nominated a Distinguished Lecturer at the US-based IEEE, she has collaborated with events at the ILO Geneva and World Communication Forum Davos as spokesperson for diversity, excellence in scientific communication.

In an exclusive chat with The Hindu, she spoke about her journey from India to CERN. Excerpts from an interview:

You are the sole Indian connection to the Higgs Boson experiment at CERN. How has been the journey like from 2012 till today?
I have been privileged to be on the permanent staff of CERN. Nevertheless, there are a number of Indian institutions that are collaborating with CERN projects and physicists from India are engaged actively in the research done at CERN. The journey from 2012 till now has been remarkable after the discovery of the Higgs for all of particle physics. It was one of the major goals of particle physics over the last three decades to discover the Higgs Boson. It gives mass to other particles, a prediction made in 1964.

What were the challenges you faced in CERN?
The challenges as a student, who arrived at CERN from India about three decades ago, were very different, given that in today’s age of Internet, students are well informed and well prepared. The education system in India has also much improved giving young students an almost equal opportunity wherever they go. The difficulties that I faced initially were lack of preparedness of working with the state-of-the-art technologies including software. But as an Indian, the edge that I always claim we have is that we can put in double or triple the effort that one can normally put in.

There has been a lot of debate about the contribution of women in science. How do you view it?
Women scientists have come a long way, not only in India. From being liabilities and inhibited from taking up science, I find that many are now interested in science and technology. Parents are also excited about careers for women in science. There are sufficient role models for them to look up to: Marie Curie, the two-time Nobel prize winner (for physics in 1903 with her husband, and for chemistry in 1911) was also the mother of Irene Joliot-Curie, another notable woman of science who shared the Nobel prize with her husband in 1935 for her own work on radioactivity, a glowing example of ‘where there is a will there is a way’. On an average, about 50% of the Indian contingents of interns are women so I can see a very bright future for women in science! To be taken seriously as a woman also requires that extra effort. But all in all, once the issues and challenges are identified, solutions can be found. As an example, I enrolled myself for a second doctorate at the University of Geneva, giving me the opportunity to go over all the courses and hands-on work needed to be competitive in the field, obtaining a D.Sc in 1996.

From Jhansi to the Mecca of Particle Physics, yours has been an exemplary journey. What brought you to the field of Physics?
I was born in Jhansi and like any other middle-class kid in India; education and emphasis on career was the only way to go. As both of my parents were teachers, the focus on performance was always a priority. I never thought of becoming a doctor or engineer, instead my dream lay more on the basis of being able to do something meaningful in life and contribute to society.

What were the important factors that you attribute to your inspiring career graph from the initial stages till now?
Due to the gender bias in society, being a woman made it more challenging to pursue my dreams. But the support of parents and teachers provided me the path to reach the position I am in today. My reason of choosing nuclear physics at BHU (Banaras Hindu University) was simply due to the outstanding set of teachers. I always admired women who worked through adversities and did pioneering work. And already in India we have many examples.

Please elaborate on the kind of projects you are working on currently
I am working on the upgrade of the experiment called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) devising detectors that can sustain high radiation and take data for the next 25 years, enabling physicists to make discoveries and answer the still outstanding questions in physics. For example, where is the anti-matter in the Universe? Are there other dimensions? What is dark matter and dark energy that accounts for a major fraction of the matter in the Universe.

What plans do you have for the Indian student community and for students in smaller cities like Vizag?
Over the last 20 years I have worked with many students - almost an average of 15-20 per year from India, providing them with opportunities to interact with scientists at CERN. If funds are available at their institutions, they have spent a couple of months at CERN doing projects in various fields, to great satisfaction of the supervisors. It is heart-warming to hear appreciative phrases about them that demonstrate we have the best students whether they come from big cities or small cities. The information age has closed the digital divide to a large extent, but a big gap remains. What I am able to do is a drop in the ocean and I intend to continue as far as I can, assisting students with exposure to Mega Science Projects like those at CERN, by interacting with them as much as possible. I remember my growing years, when these kinds of interactions with eminent scientists shaped my thinking and ambitions.

According to you where does India lack in becoming an innovation and research hub?
Despite the improvements in our laboratory infrastructures, we have a long way to go to be at ease with technology, especially instrumentation. ISRO has set a great example, and also in the Science and Research labs all over the country there has been a quantum jump over the last decades. Nevertheless we would need to have a few central laboratories only focusing on experiments with technologies that are exploited in all fields of science. Simply train students for a couple of years by embedding this training in the later years of study whether it’s the IITs or NITs or Universities or other Science and Technology related institutions. Even students coming from the elite institutions are completely unable to take charge. Why does a student from Germany, U.K., France and so on, take very little time in getting up to speed?

Your advice for aspiring scientists in India?
My interactions with Indian young student has been inspiring, they have the potential, the ambition. I truly hope many aspiring youngsters do not give in to the allure of fast jobs and big money, a trend so common in India. One must think hard on what one wants and follow their passion. I learnt many things the hard way, but one lesson is for sure: If anyone can do it, you can do it too!

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