Dr Archana Sharma, recently appointed at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, as Senior Advisor for Relations with International Organisations and who was the only Indian on the staff at CERN, who was involved in the path-breaking discovery of Higgs Boson particle in 2012. She is author and co-author of over 1000 publications and is invited regularly for talks in international conferences and public addresses. In an e-mail interview given to Shubhada Kapil, she talks about her remarkable journey from Jhansi to CERN, a story that is an inspiration for many aspiring Indian scientists.
Shubhada Kapil: How do you view your journey from India to CERN? What were your motivations?
Dr Archana Sharma: If I may be immodest for a moment, it does look exemplary when one reflects back on the very tough and long years of very challenging times! After graduating from the Banaras Hindu University, I wanted to pursue Nuclear Physics at a higher level, I must say due to my very enthusiastic and motivating teachers. I was very happy when I got selected to do a PhD from the Delhi University. During this doctoral period I went to CERN on an invitation to participate in a workshop. Watching scientists with different specializations – physics, computing, data analysis, instrumentation, engineering and so on – working together towards a common goal in tandem was inspirational. I enrolled for a second PhD. I knew then that getting into research was my calling!
Shubhada Kapil: Did you aspire to work in the field of Physics ever since childhood? How did you end up pursuing Particle Physics?
Dr Archana Sharma: I grew up in Jhansi, a very small town in India. I never dreamt of becoming a doctor or an engineer, I just wanted to do something that could make a difference. I was born into a middle-class Indian family – focusing on studies and pursuing my career were the only options I had. Both my parents were teachers so the emphasis on my performance in school was a priority. My physics teacher in school encouraged me to focus on physics along with other subjects. My teachers became my role models and I started imagining myself as a teacher. In college, I had an outstanding set of teachers who were always available to help me, for that matter there were excellent women teachers who served as my early role models. The concept of particle physics fascinated me, because one would always want to learn the how and why of matter just like peeling an onion where every layer is different and magical.
Shubhada Kapil: You moved from India to Geneva, you were a woman scientist. What were your initial experiences?
Dr Archana Sharma: I have been working very hard to break the stereotype that girls or women can’t be in male-dominated careers. Of course it requires much more from a woman to be working doubly hard to prove her mettle, given the so-called social responsibilities. In the early days, when I said I lived in Geneva, often people would say, ‘you must be a secretary at CERN’ or ‘you must be a translator in the United Nations’, with due respect to the professional secretaries and translators. I believe that things have changed these past decades, and more and more women are getting into science and are being acknowledged. Women scientists and engineers at CERN are very capable and confident, just look at our director general Fabiola Gianotti. She and many other women became my role models once I was at CERN. I had to put in a lot of effort to speak as confidently, as I suffered, rightly or wrongly, with a feeling of being inadequately prepared. That was the reason why I took up a second PhD, and continuously kept learning by following all possible courses, both technical and self development. Something that I continue today as well having completed a course on “High Impact Leadership” from the Cambridge Institute of Sustainable Studies in December 2020!
“I have been working very hard to break the stereotype that girls or women can’t be in male-dominated careers. Of course it requires much more from a woman to be working doubly hard to prove her mettle, given the so-called social responsibilities.”
Shubhada Kapil: You mentioned about your second PhD. What was it about?
Dr Archana Sharma: My first PhD was from Delhi University. Of course I did my best, but there were several lacunae in my knowledge given the lack of infrastructure and hands-on training possibilities in those days. And so, I decided to pursue a second PhD from Geneva. The work during this period was focused on experimentation and studies of gas detectors for radiation, which later became my expertise.
Shubhada Kapil: When you first arrived at CERN, it would have been a totally new experience. How was it?
Dr Archana Sharma: I came to CERN for the first time in 1987; it did not take long to start having the imposter syndrome which lasted for quite some time. Apart from the usual cultural shift, there was a lot of learning in the way I was used to working. I learnt how not to be shy in asking questions, but it took some time to not be hesitant with seniors and professors. Of course this has changed a lot. Now students from India come with a lot of confidence!
Shubhada Kapil: You are working in a place totally surrounded by Physics & Particles. How do you feel about it?
Dr Archana Sharma: I was a curious child, doing little experiments at home with my siblings and friends. I chose physics because I always had questions and was eager to look for answers. Being at a place surrounded by physics and particles feels adventurous. Every single day brings the opportunity to learn new things and overcome new challenges along with small rewards in its way. I feel privileged to be a tiny part of this big world of CERN, which incidentally has no borders. Collaborations exist all over the world and courtesy CERN, the World Wide Web was invented here in 1989 by Tim Berners Lee; the whole world has shrunk and availability of knowledge is more democratic.
Shubhada Kapil: You are working for an organization that conducts massive experiments. What is CERN actually doing?
Dr Archana Sharma: CERN's main focus is particle physics – the study of the fundamental constituents of matter – but the physics programme at the laboratory is much broader, ranging from nuclear to high-energy physics, from studies of antimatter to the possible effects of cosmic rays on clouds. Indeed CERN is an incredibly large organization and I feel I am a very fortunate small cog in this huge machinery.
Shubhada Kapil: What is the Higgs-Boson particle & why would we call it “God Particle”?
Dr Archana Sharma: The Higgs boson took on the nickname the “God particle” just because it gives “mass” to all other particles. Higgs, Englert, and their colleagues gave a theory in 1964 that there must be a mathematical model to explain why other particles have mass, why things hold together, why you and I are able to exist. That something is the Higgs boson.
Shubhada Kapil: You were the sole Indian on the staff of CERN from 2001 to be part of the Higgs-Boson team in the CMS experiment at CERN. How was the experience like?
Dr Archana Sharma: A number of Indian institutions have been collaborating with research in CERN projects, Indian physicists are actively engaged in projects of the CERN. I feel privileged to be on the permanent staff at CERN working on the CMS experiment. My work has been designing and building radiation detectors in CMS, of course with a large team. After the discovery of Higgs in 2012 it has been a remarkable journey. It was one of the major goals of particle physics at the Large Hadron Collider project at CERN to discover the “God particle”. After this discovery by the ATLAS and CMS Experiments at CERN, the Physics Nobel Prize of 2013 was given to Prof. Higgs and Prof. Englert.
“A number of Indian institutions have been collaborating with research in CERN projects, Indian physicists are actively engaged in projects of the CERN. I am privileged to be on the permanent staff at CERN working on the CMS experiment.”
Shubhada Kapil: You also played a role in the discovery of the Higgs-Boson. Can you tell us something about it?
Dr Archana Sharma: The discovery of the Higgs-Boson required a large number of resources. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) accelerates the protons to high energy collisions. Trillions of electron volts are required to create enough energy to create the Higgs Boson. Experiments like ATLAS and CMS with detectors (like complex mobile cameras) are needed to take pictures in order to “see” these particles. I have been designing and then building hundreds of these detectors that could detect “muons” (another elementary particle, a cousin of the electron) which would tell you if a Higgs was produced or not. To make a discovery we always need muon detectors as they can pass through meters of iron and provide a clean signature. Along with my team, I have spent the last two decades designing, building, installing and operating these detectors at the CMS experiment in CERN. Over the last over 10 years I am the Project Manager for a collaboration that I have built from scratch, working on and then introducing a new technology for muon detectors. This collaboration spans 16 countries and consists of about 40 institutions.
Shubhada Kapil: What is the connection of India with the Higgs-Boson experiment?
Dr Archana Sharma: There are more than 250 Indian scientists and students associated with CERN in one way or another from India. High energy physicists from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) have been a part of experiments at CERN since the 1970s. Since the 1990s, India has formally engaged with CERN first as an “Observer State” and then later in 2017 as an Associate Member State at CERN. More and more researchers and institutions from India are joining hands and collaborating with CERN in the accelerator program, experiments or other sectors.
Shubhada Kapil: Is there a connection between the ‘Higgs-Boson’ experiment & people’s life?
Dr Archana Sharma: Einstein’s imagination and curiosity has resulted in unimaginable rewards that we use every single day, whether it is to use the GPS for planning our journeys or the green energy that is helping us now to move towards battling climate change! Marie Curie’s work on radioactivity gave us a new field of study – Nuclear Physics, now particle physics – with an unimaginable impact on society, imagine having to fix a broken bone without having the X-ray as a tool?. No one knew what the humble electrons and photons would mean when they were studied and discovered. Today they are literally charging the whole world! Hence we have to continue the tradition of scientific curiosity.
The Higgs Boson needed a very large scale facility like the LHC. The socioeconomic and cultural benefits gained from the project – not including potential scientific discoveries – exceed the total financial investment. In 2025, the LHC, which is being upgraded now, will receive a huge boost in its performance and will deliver up to ten times more collisions every time protons cross within its gigantic detectors. It will extend the life and potential of the accelerator to 2038 at a total cost of 2.9 billion Swiss francs. It is estimated that every Swiss franc invested in the HL-LHC upgrade would pay back approximately 1.8 Swiss francs in societal benefits. These include the training of young scientists, collaboration with industry on developing and rolling out new technology, cultural benefits, scientific output measured in total papers published and so on.
Shubhada Kapil: What is The Large Hadron Collider (LHC)? How big it is?
Dr Archana Sharma: The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful accelerator, consisting of a 27-kilometre ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way. Inside the accelerator, two high-energy particle beams travel at close to the speed of light before they are made to collide. The beams travel in opposite directions in separate beam pipes. Thousands of magnets of different varieties and sizes are used to direct the beams around the accelerator and then made to collide at the large experiments placed at interaction points on the ring.
Shubhada Kapil: How will you explain your work as a particle physicist in simple words?
Dr Archana Sharma: Particle Physics is the study of the smallest constituents of matter and how these particles exist and interact. Such elementary particles are for example the photon, the electron and the quarks, but also the Higgs boson, which gives mass to other elementary particles. These elementary particles and the forces between them can be explained in a table called the Standard Model. Particle physicists study these elementary constituents. From the universe to everything around us, including us, everything is made with the same building block – particle matter. My work includes designing and building tools called radiation detectors that can help to study these elementary particles.
Shubhada Kapil: What was the first problem that you started working on at CERN?
Dr Archana Sharma: My very first research work at CERN in 1987 was to do electronic measurements in small detectors and in addition do some simulations to understand their properties. That was a big learning as I had never worked in a lab with electronic equipment in India before. It was a tense time, but bit by bit I managed to create a place for myself in the team. I learnt to use and create the tools, both software and hardware that were needed for those studies. Managing to extract measurements from a detector was something quite regular, but a big achievement for me, especially when those measurements matched the simulations that I did. Translating this work on to larger detectors and studying transport properties of many gas mixtures for the operation of these detectors formed the basis of my DSc at the Geneva University. This R&D lasted for over a decade in my career when I could grow and establish myself as a “detector physicist”.
Shubhada Kapil: Please tell us about the projects you are working on currently?
Dr Archana Sharma: From 2001 until nearly 2009, I worked on the design and validation of “Resistive Plate Chambers (RPCs)” for muon detection at CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid). Along with my team I have built and tested over 500 RPCs that are now operational after being installed and commissioned during that period.
Around 2009, I proposed a new technology to be brought into the muon system of CMS. This was based on a micro pattern detector – the Gas Electron Multiplier (GEM) on which I had worked during the nineties. In 2019 and 2020, my team installed GEM 144 detectors in CMS; that will take data in 2022 when LHC restarts!
Shubhada Kapil: What has been the most challenging phase of your career?
Dr Archana Sharma: Initially, it was tough because I was in a foreign country with few Indians. I had a young family, I felt like I was doing justice neither to my family nor to my work. For my second Doctoral degree from Geneva University, I had to learn and give my exams in French, a language completely new to me, I felt like giving up so many times. It felt a lot of work to deal with along with the complexities of instrumentation and experiments. There were no weekends, no holidays but I am glad I overcame the challenges. Challenges continue every single day in a career as difficult as mine, and I think every phase poses different challenges offering opportunities to learn.
“There were no weekends, no holidays but I am glad I overcame the challenges. Challenges continue every single day in a career as difficult as mine, but I think every phase poses different challenges.”
Shubhada Kapil: Are there any specific challenges you faced in CERN that people should know about?
Dr Archana Sharma: I faced quite different challenges from today’s kids who are quite well prepared and informed. My challenges were unpreparedness and lack of practical knowledge and ease with technologies and software. But I think that all humans and particularly us Indians have hidden powers and they can easily double or triple their efforts when needed, that came to my rescue!
Shubhada Kapil: There are currently several ongoing efforts to highlight the contributions of women in science. What are your views about it?
Dr Archana Sharma: Stereotype is the bane of women, and breaking the mould is what has been happening in the past decades. People do not take you seriously, they do not consider you smart enough or they just do not encourage you to go ahead in science. In India, there is on the one hand a tradition and heritage of education from ancient times, but very few female role models. At least now in India from what I can see, women are excelling in every field. Of course there is a lot of work still to be done. There are also amazing role models in science who have won Nobel prizes. Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie are two of them. I believe Indian women scientists have a bright future ahead of them and every challenge comes with a solution. If I take myself as an example, I went for my second doctorate from Geneva which provided me with the opportunity to learn and consolidate my lacunae.
“Stereotype is the bane of women, and breaking the mould is what has been happening in the past decades. People do not take you seriously, they do not consider you smart enough or they just do not encourage you to go ahead in science.”
Shubhada Kapil: We have heard that you have established a foundation to reach out to young students. Can you tell us something it?
Dr Archana Sharma: Ever since I was a kid, I loved to teach other younger children. Both my parents were teachers and the environment at home focused around the theme of education. After coming to CERN, and after coming to grips with my career and work, whenever I would travel to India, I would share whatever little I had learnt with young students who would be very willing listeners. Very gently, during the years 2000-2010, I was systematically invited to schools and colleges in India to give talks about my experience and work. I think sharing the excitement of working at the world’s largest laboratory would help the students to be more attracted to study science and STEM. I wanted to go beyond just telling them how I did it by showing them a direction from where they could possibly create their own path. Initially these visits used to be quite haphazard – for example, teachers or students who would know me, would invite me or arrange even to come to CERN. That’s when I wondered, why not do this more systematically with a calendar and clearer goals? That would also help me in managing my own time. This is how Life Lab Foundation was born with an aim to spread the joy of learning, contributing and making an impact with science. International exposure is very important from a very early age. I am privileged to have this position in my life; it would be a crime if I did not use it for the benefit of aspiring children of my country.
“International exposure is very important from a very early age. I am privileged to have this position in my life; it would be a crime if I did not use it for the benefit of the aspiring children of my country.”
Shubhada Kapil: Through your Life Lab Foundation in what manner are you hoping to make a difference to the Indian student community?
Dr Archana Sharma: During my entire career at CERN, I have interacted with various students from various countries, particularly India. My foundation is a mechanism by which we can maximise these interactions. Institutions send students to CERN for a few months to do projects in various fields. Indian students have been doing very well over the last decade and show excellent knowledge and skills – whether they are from big or small cities. I interact with students as much as I can and give them exposure to Mega Science Projects. When I first stepped into research I remember that these interactive sessions helped me a lot and shaped my own career. Now, with the pandemic, my day begins early, using the time difference, I spend an hour or two for all that I can do in terms of interactions with students and teachers in India.
Shubhada Kapil: India still has a long way to go to emerge as an innovation and research hub. What can be done to change this scenario?
Dr Archana Sharma: India has come a long way since I was a student. The laboratory infrastructures have improved; there has been a major shift upward in science and research labs all over the country. ISRO has set an example when it comes to labs and research. Many institutions have stepped up hands on training. But still, we have a long way to go with technology and instrumentation. There should be centralised facilities for all students to use laboratories with excellent technologies and instruments that can be used in all fields of science. Students should be trained after their studies, every institution or university that offers science and technology courses should be able to benefit from this. Top Indian students coming from top universities find themselves unable to take charge, for no fault of theirs. Whereas other students from the UK, Germany, etc. come right up to speed and their progress is exponential. My dream is to be able to make this difference for my students in India. How, I still do not know!
Shubhada Kapil: Your journey has been truly inspirational. What message would you give for those who aspire to become scientists?
Dr Archana Sharma: Not taking any risk is the biggest risk as you get along your journey of choices. Note that not all choices can be the right ones! But you get to learn! You must pursue STEM education first, for an overall objective view of the world. This will lead you to an internal intellectual revolution, propelling your move to higher education and research. Given the power it brings you can create an everlasting impact on the world. Never doubt. You have the ability and resilience to realise your dreams inside you, unleash it!
“Not taking any risk is the biggest risk as you get along your journey of choices. Note that not all choices can be the right ones! But you get to learn”.