The Higgs Boson is an elusive particle predicted by the Standard Model which had been evading discovery for long. The elementary particle was long the missing link in models, and nicknamed as “The God Particle”. In mid-2012, CERN announced the discovery of a likely contender particle which could have been a Higgs Boson. Subsequent findings continue to partly and progressively corroborate the erstwhile findings. Two teams of researchers independently reported the discovery. Dr. Archana Sharma, an Indian scientist was part of one of the CMS teams that made the discovery of the boson.
Dr. Archana Sharma first came to the CERN in 1987 to take part in a workshop. Thenceforth she embarked on an unexpected journey that took her from Central India to Switzerland.
Two teams of researchers independently reported the discovery. Dr. Archana Sharma, an Indian scientist was part of one of the CMS teams that made the discovery of the boson.
Hailing from Jhansi, Sharma studied at St. Francis Convent. She attributes her interest in the discipline to her imbibing and curiosity-rousing passionate schoolteachers, who led her to fall in love and wonder of Physics. Both of her parents were teachers and focus on education and career was quite strong. She describes hers as a typical middle-class family. She recalls educational performance being highly stressed. “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.”, she recalled in a 2012 interview.
She attributes most of her success to having a wonderful set of teachers throughout her life. According to her, her teachers at the Banaras Hindu University consolidated in her a definite attraction and inclination towards pursuing higher studies in physics. With her proclivity towards attaining new heights and contributing something novel to the field, she enrolled in a PhD programme in Experimental Particle Physics at the Delhi University which she claims to have relished a lot.
What is remarkable is that Dr. Archana Sharma did not follow the steeper educational course of attaining her successive degrees from premier scientific institutions as the IISc, but rather went through less-specialised, broader North Indian universities.
CERN: An Unexpected Route
Following a rather incidental workshop-participation opportunity at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, while she was pursuing her Ph.D., an initially apprehensive Dr. Sharma shed her inhibitions and got piqued by the institution, leading to her earning a year-long tenure there. The CERN is the world’s central and premier nuclear and particle physics research institutions and one of the most massive and cooperative scientific undertakings in world, accomplished by international collaboration. ‘I never thought I would end up at the Mecca of particle physics.’, she recalls.
“It was challenging to do a Ph.D. in a place where I had to get through exams in French, a language totally alien to me. Designing and building detectors from scratch was another tough task. There was no weekend, no holidays, and with a young child, it was an uphill task. But I had to take these challenges head on,” Sharma said about her initial days at the institution.
With her first yearlong tenure, she got hands-on experience and a chance to apply her theoretical learning from her postgraduation and doctorate. She then did a second Ph.D. from the University of Geneva and subsequently committed to work on particle detectors, attaining paramountcy in the subject. A few years after she had her son, she was chosen for a position at CERN. She joined the CMS, which besides the Atlas is one of the two massive multipurpose experimental undertakings at the CERN.
She has been instrumental in building the Muon detector, a sophisticated, large device that detects a special class of particles called muons, to enable researchers to shed light on the mysteries of the origin of the universe. Her work required fastidious calibration and ultra-sophisticated and refined instrumentation for detectors. Numerous meters and equipment monitor carefully executed high-speed particle collisions in accelerators that partially mimic such incidents that transpired in the newborn universe, in immediate wake of the Big Bang, enabling cosmologists to fill in the gaps in their mathematical models.
She’s currently a senior staff scientist at CERN, having spent 30 years of her illustrious career being associated with the organisation.
She is quite optimistic about ushering in Indian women in basic sciences. She emphasises the importance of role models who overcame their own social barriers, stigma and prejudice to be looked up to by budding female scientists and aspirants.
An Inspiration For Indian Women
“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”, she recalled in the interview.
From caring for her ageing mother to hosting a get-together for Indian students at her home to organising a research programme or setting up a new research project, Dr. Archana Sharma’s enthusiasm and drive are incomparable.
She stated that the future of Indian women in Science was quite promising and families were seeing it as an attractive venue. According to her, half of the Indian intern-contingent at the institution was comprised by females, and the number was increasing. She is quite optimistic about ushering in Indian women in basic sciences. She emphasises the importance of role models who overcame their own social barriers, stigma and prejudice to be looked up to by budding female scientists and aspirants.
While many high-achievers and identity-pioneers merely serve as beacons to inspire others hailing from their background, a distant signalling light beckoning them forth, Dr. Sharma acted as a lighthouse, a pathfinder and a guide. She has done much to secure internships and participative opportunities for motivated, enthusiastic and meritorious Indian students at various CERN facilities, aiding them enroll and making the whole process accessible for students hailing from humble, third world backgrounds.
By her grace, several Indian students have been able to reach and successfully and freely work in an alien environment at the state-of-the-art institution, where they face numerous bureaucratic hurdles and linguo-cultural barriers. She extends her support in every sphere and acts as a diligent and initiative-taking constant companion to her subordinates and students. Student feedback have lauded her as a volition-driven, ever-ready and beneficent guiding figure and mentor. Dr. Archana Sharma always strives to give back to her country and make her privileged surmounting position come of use in harnessing the untapped calibre of her country’s youth.