‘I never thought I would end up at the Mecca of particle physics.’ Archana Sharma, the only Indian scientist in the Higgs Boson team, talks about her journey to CERN.

The Higgs Boson experiment at CERN has created a huge buzz over the past few weeks, but it’s been even more exciting to find an Indian connection to it. Archana Sharma is the only Indian scientist who has been involved in the Higgs Boson experiment. Currently a Staff Physicist at the CERN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Archana finished her post-graduation from the Banaras Hindu University and her doctorate from Delhi University. She moved to Geneva for her post doctoral research.

Over a career of 23 years, all of which has been with CERN one way or the other, she has helped make CERN accessible to Indian students by facilitating student visits and providing prestigious internships. She lives with her husband in a tiny village called Russin close to CERN. Excerpts from an interview

What was your individual contribution to the CERN effort in finding the Higgs Boson?

My contribution to the CERN R&D effort has been at various levels over the years. The CERN effort is the culmination of a large number of scientists across the world and I am just one of them. Being the only permanent Indian staff at the CERN facility is a matter of pride and privilege. I worked on design and prototyping the present generation of “muon” detectors currently operational. These are crucial for the “gold plated” discovery channel for the Higgs Boson. My major task is developing radiation hard detectors for CMS for sustained operation at LHC upgrades in this decade and the next.

How did you address the challenges of being part of the CERN facility?

The initial phase was a bit tough. I was still completing studies and working at CERN on detector development, and this was quite challenging especially because I was in a foreign country with very few Indians. At that time we were a young family and there was a point where I wouldn’t do justice to anything and I felt like giving up quite a few times. It was also daunting partly because of the complexity of instrumentation and the experiments. The day to day challenges of information management, laboratory schedules learning and progressing in a foreign land was massive. I am glad I overcame it. Obviously, my family was the backbone for my success here.  

How did you address obstacles of being a woman through your academic career from India to Geneva?

Growing up as a girl in Jhansi and studying at St. Francis’ Convent, I never thought I would end up at the Mecca of particle physics. Just like any other middle class kid in India, education and emphasis on career was the only way to salvation. With both parents being teachers, the focus on performance was immense. I never dreamt of becoming a doctor or engineer, which was the pinnacle of doing well those days. My dreams lay more on the basis of being able to do something meaningful and impactful in life than to just earn money.

Being a woman made it even more challenging, given the social norms, but the support of my parents, close family and teachers was overwhelming. It made me what I am today. I chose Nuclear Physics against electronics and solid state physics at BHU simply due to the “outstanding” set of teachers. I always admired women who worked through adversities and did pioneering work. In addition, my mother is the epitome, of diligence! My father had an amazing confidence in my abilities; I wish he was here today!

Do you find more women coming through the ranks in the Indian scientific establishment?

Absolutely. Women scientists have come a long way in India. From being liabilities and ostracised, I find that many are interested in science. Parents are also excited about careers for women in science. There are also sufficient role models for them to look up to. In my current batch of interns from India, 75 per cent are girls! On an average, about 50 per cent of the Indian contingent on interns are women, which is quite telling in terms of selection criteria. I see a very bright future for Indian women in science!

You have helped Indian students intern at CERN over the years. Did you always want to give back to the country and its people?

Being in this privileged position, it was only natural. I always felt it would be beneficial for the students and it is always a pleasure to help them. Giving students an opportunity to see hands-on technology, talk to the best in the field, attend seminars by Nobel laureates, the work culture, team work and international environment helps their dreams grow. Each student represents an enormous potential; I can only be happy that I have contributed towards unleashing that potential.

Lastly, your advice to aspiring Indian scientists?

Dream and it is possible. I firmly believe that more and more scientists from India will be contributing to this effort. India’s contribution to the CERN facility is already quite substantial, and can be taken to another level. Around 150 Indian scientists have been associated in one way or another and, in the last few years, collaborations with Indian institutions and universities have grown dramatically.

Indian youngsters have the potential and I truly hope many aspiring scientists make it here to then give back a tiny bit so that the spiral of progress can continue.  There is something for every aspiring scientist to do; however small, however big. I firmly believe that every one who wants to can participate and contribute.