Being the only Indian permanent staff member of CERN is a unique honour that sits lightly on Dr Archana Sharma. This unassuming experimental physicist who hails from Jhansi is fiercely proud to be Indian and believes the image of Indian scientists “has completely changed” in the Continent in the last decade. “Today, people in Europe look up to Indian researchers who have proven they can do as well as, or even better than anyone else,” Dr Sharma told HT in an exclusive interview.
Sharma was interested in physics since high school. Encouraged by some “excellent teachers” to take it up as her calling, she never doubted what she wanted to do in life: be a physicist.
After graduating from the Banaras Hindu University, she reached a familiar crossroads in every student’s life when she had to choose a ‘stream’. “At that point, it was the end of knowledge,” she says, “for many students who rushed to enroll in medicine, engineering, computer sciences and electronics.” But for Sharma, a doctorate in nuclear physics — “to try and find answers to the secrets of the universe” — was the way to go.
Was being a girl ever a handicap in what was then essentially a male research bastion? “Not at all,” says Sharma, who completed her Ph.D from Delhi University and later her D.Sc from the University of Geneva. “In fact, the knowledge that you may have a handicap acts as a catalyst and prompts you to achieve more than your male colleagues!”
She admits, however, that it is difficult for a researcher to juggle 24x7 lab work and family. “I’m fortunate that my husband and his family are not only appreciative of my career, but extremely proud as well.” Not surprisingly, her son Abhishek literally grew up in the lab. “My staff position at CERN helped him do several short internships there, which fired him up in science,” says Sharma. Abhishek now studies materials science at the Imperial College in London.
“Working at CERN requires sound knowledge of particle detector technology, which is my field, and good communication skills to interact with researchers from diverse countries and cultures,” notes Sharma.
High Energy Physicists from India, mainly from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, have participated in experiments at CERN since the 70s. The Department of Atomic Energy and the Atomic Energy Commission participate in the LHC with several components and subsystems, as well as provide skilled manpower support .
India actively contributes to the LHC Grid computing too. Still, Sharma wishes there was a larger Indian presence at CERN. “Student exchange progammes are a way forward,” she suggests. “Although summer student programmes are usually only for European member states, I am pushing to have Indians on board. And not just the crème de la crème, but those who don’t have the opportunity.”
The LHC has been 20 years in the making and is now ready to take data. “You don’t have to physically move anywhere,” says Sharma. “Using the Grid and the technology we have now, India can join the bandwagon and be part of the greatest experiment ever.”