Principal physicist at CERN, Geneva, Dr. Archana Sharma and her team helped in building muon detectors for the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment, that discovered the Higgs-Boson “God” Particle in 2012 and for which the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2013 was given to Prof. Peter Higgs and Prof. Francois Englert. An inspiring woman who found her calling in particle physics, plays an important role in encouraging young minds today.

She has journeyed for 30 years on the theme of particle physics in CERN. It’s been “A true adventure!” exclaims Archana. “Every single day still feels like an exploration of new challenges to be overcome and little rewards along the way. The first decade at CERN was more focused on R&D towards developing detectors that I worked upon in the two decades that followed.”

This young girl from Jhansi, with an avid interest in science, aced her way through her college education and doctoral work in Delhi in nuclear physics. A chance opportunity of a three-month visiting scientist position at CERN made her understand that despite a Ph.D., there was a lacuna in her education when it came to practical experience. She decided to get back to the books and earn a second Ph.D. in Geneva. Her project was on detecting radiation with gaseous detectors which ultimately became her specialization.
Why particle physics? She explains, “Look around! Don’t you wonder where the internet comes from, where integrated circuits that are used in every gadget, in every home, hospital or airport come from – it is the field of high energy physics. Most of the modern-day progress towards saving human lives by accurate weather forecasts and climate change use extensive simulation techniques that come from particle physics. If we could look into the future, sustainable energy will need an understanding of matter and that is why research at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is absolutely essential. There are many other uses of particle detectors.”

Understanding particle physics

That, in a nutshell summarises the importance of understanding the need of particle physics. But take a step back – what is particle physics and what are detectors? “Particle physics is a branch of physics to study the elementary constituents of matter and radiation, and the interactions between them. It is also called ‘high energy physics’. Everything in the universe, from stars and planets, to us is made from the same basic building blocks – particles of matter.” And detectors? She says, “Just as archaeologists can decipher history from the remains found in excavations and fossils, physicists identify subatomic particles from the traces they leave in detectors. Accelerators at CERN boost particles to high energies before they are made to collide inside detectors. The detectors gather clues about the particles from which physicists can work out which particle traversed the detector.”

Working in this field sounds like a difficult task. Did she have major obstacles along her way? She responds, “Challenges are natural, and it is up to us to overcome them one way or another. As a woman, a lot of support from my parents and family has been a major factor contributing to my success. In the workplace, diligence speaks for itself and hard work is something that can help overcome any obstacle. One needs to break up large issues into smaller problems and then … just solve them!”

Giving back to society

Archana believes that while the education system in India has moved forward, there is room for improvement. Commenting on the lack of practical training in India, she says “Well, every student is an eager student and if trained well they can do wonders. In India, there is a lack of infrastructure and systems that can be used for hands on training. It is well recognized, and a lot of people privately or institutionally are working in this direction. Of course, lack of resources has always been an issue.”
To help with this, Archana has enabled around 500 students to come to CERN on projects. As a TEDx speaker, she has been inspiring students because she believes that “Every opportunity to interact with students is a platform to raise awareness and showcasing opportunities that exist in terms of making a career in science and particle physics.” She started and advises the Life Lab Foundation in India which “shapes ideas for young students to begin their journey towards leveraging science and technology for the society.”
When asked about the future of her work, she strongly believes in the next generation. Her reply: “I work a lot with younger colleagues and students. Sharing my opportunities and mentoring the next generation is one of my goals. I try to give what I can, when I can, in this direction. My research work is a collaborative team effort, and I am hoping to see the project that I have initiated be carried on by younger team members.”

Photo of Dr Archana Sharma

“Imagine that you can do it!”

Finally, specifically talking about women in science, she is quick to say, “Imagining that they too can do it, is the major challenge women – particularly Indian women – face. The stereotypes are changing albeit very slowly. The role of a woman as primary caregiver at home is the mindset and a very gentle shift that women can be equally competent and capable is taking shape. Hence, women role models particularly in streams like science, computing and engineering are much needed and appreciated by women who then need to create a chain for helping each other.”

Life in Switzerland

Archana likes how advanced the system in Switzerland is especially compared to India when she moved here. Having said that, she believes that it was her flexibility in handling challenges with ‘jugaad’ and traditional Indian values that allowed her to grow and grab the opportunities that were provided to her.

Her message to Namaste Switzerland readers

“The very first thing is to believe in oneself. When I came to Geneva, I lacked confidence in myself. I did not know how I could charter my life forward, given that I had a very young family and an extremely challenging profession. There will always be this nagging regret about not making enough time for work on the one hand and family on the other. However, the one thing that all human beings have equal is the 24 hours in a day. And what I have learnt is that nothing is impossible! Of course, it’s very hard work, but clarity of one’s goals is what is needed and then it is just a matter of execution. You will be amazed at what you can achieve in a day! And each day then builds towards the goals we set for ourselves, the higher they are the more you can do! What did I learn from the Swiss? It’s never bad weather, it’s just that you’re not well prepared!”

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