Indian scientist Archana Sharma is pushing the boundaries of physics at CERN

Physicist Archana Sharma is one of the modern trailblazers of the Indian science community. 

Sharma received India’s highest honor for Indians living abroad, called the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award during the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas 2023 at Indore.
Dr Archana Sharma (centre) receiving the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, the nation’s highest honor for Indians living abroad, from President Droupadi Murmu (right) during the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas 2023 at Indore. Photo courtesy: Twitter/@archanasharmagv

Sharma is best known for her work in gaseous detectors which she contributed to the discovery of the Higgs boson, the only Indian scientist to do so.

She was recently recognised for all she has accomplished since stepping out of her comfort zone. Early this year, Sharma received India’s highest honor for Indians living abroad, called the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award during the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas 2023 at Indore.

The award, presented by the President of India, is given for exceptional contributions in professions like economics, altruism, journalism and science and technology.

“This award is a testament to our commitment and dedication towards making positive contributions,” says Sharma. “We have worked together to promote peace and development for all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or background, which has emerged from our strong Indian roots and our commitment to the philosophy of Vasudhev Kutumbakam—[a Sanskrit phrase that means] ‘The world is one family.’”

Sharma's involvement at CERN began in 1987 when she earned an internship with a group led by Georges Charpak, who won the Nobel Physice Prize in 1992. After returning to India and completing her PhD, she applied for and won a three-year fellowship at CERN conduct research in the detector development group.

Dr. Archana Sharma, Scientist & Senior Advisor (International Relations), CERN delivered the Chair Summary of Gender, Diversity & Inclusivity Committee in #Science20 Summit Meeting at Isha Foundation, Coimbatore.
Dr Archana Sharma delivering the Chair Summary of Gender, Diversity and Inclusivity Committee at the Science20 Summit Meeting at Isha Foundation, Coimbatore. Photo courtesy: Twitter/@S20_India

In the early 1990s, she had joined the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in a time before the World Wide Web was in the public domain, and the Nobel prize announcement came in via fax.

For a time, Sharma was the only Indian citizen employed by CERN and just one of a handful of scientists of Indian origin at the European particle physics laboratory. She had taken a chance, leaving her home to develop technology for the largest high-energy physics experiment in the world.

"Indians have played quite a big role at CERN from the 1960s and 70s. There were stalwarts like (particle physicist) Prof Prince Malhotra who were already working at CERN, in collaboration with Delhi University, Punjab University, and so on. But everybody has been contributing for several decades.

"Our contribution became much bigger, and we became an observer state in 1999. Then we became an associate member in 2017. So, opportunities started opening for Indian nationals," she noted.

Sharma said the Indian scientific community has long been engaged in collaborative efforts with CERN, contributing to various experiments and research projects.

She was on a trip to India recently and visited her alma mater BHU, spoke during a G20 scientists' conclave and attended a seminar on ‘Bridging the Gap: Particle Physics and its Relevance in our Everyday Lives' organised by the Shiv Nadar School, Gurugram, and her NGO Life Lab Foundation.

The physics conclave at Shiv Nadar School, she said, gave her an opportunity to directly interact with the students.

"I keep coming back because I feel that whatever little I have done in my life, it can inspire students, particularly girls. So I try to do what I can to inspire the students."

"And I think scientific temperament in India is much better than in many other countries. Education and particularly scientific education is highly regarded in our country," she added.

Sharma is now working on making experiments at CERN more environment friendly.

"I think we all have a duty towards the planet. So we need to look at ways and means on how we can work sustainably, especially given the very long nature of our experiments," she added.

CERN is also working on reducing carbon footprint by optimising energy usage in experiments and phasing out greenhouse gases such as freons as a coolant.

"We are reusing the waste energy that is being created from the accelerators into heating, because we need to heat buildings, and there are programmes on R&D. So we are definitely very conscious and we have a team that is looking into ways of improving sustainability," Sharma said. "In the next generation, that is the upgrade, we have freon-less cooling. All the cooling that was leaking or giving (carbon) footprint in the atmosphere is going to be zero starting from 2027.”

Sharma received her masters in nuclear physics from the Banaras Hindu University. In 1989, she received her PhD in experimental particle physics from Delhi University.

Dr Archana Sharma on a recent trip to her alma mater. Photo courtesy: Twitter/@mmv_bhu_tpc

Both of her parents were teachers––her father taught mechanical engineering, and her mother taught economics and geography.

Sharma said there is an ambitious plan to build a new, much larger collider in Geneva.

"In the future, there are bigger programmes that are on the horizon. One programme is the Future Circular Collider (FCC) and which is going to be 100 km in circumference… there is room for research and development (R&D), there is room for taking big chunks of responsibility and making our industry engage in a way that is never done before," she explained.

India is playing a major role and could play an even bigger one in the upgrade of the Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle accelerator that helps scientists understand the fundamental structure of matter, says scientist Archana Sharma.

The upgrade of the LHC – a 27-km ring of superconducting magnets buried under the ground between France and Switzerland – expected in 2025 could lead to new and exciting opportunities for India's researchers and industry, says the Indian-origin senior scientist.

"There is a very big upgrade happening The potential benefits of this upgrade for India's scientific community and industrial sector hold the promise of pushing the boundaries of knowledge and technological advancements," Sharma told PTI.

"And, of course, India is playing a major role and can play an even bigger role because I see huge potential, huge competence, huge industry component as well, huge student population that can be trained and build capacities for future leaders," she added.

CERN, headquartered in Geneva, has been at the forefront of groundbreaking discoveries in particle physics for decades.

The LHC has been instrumental in unravelling the mysteries of the universe, including the discovery of the Higgs boson, or the god particle' in 2012. Higgs boson is an elementary particle in the standard model of particle physics.

The forthcoming upgrade to the LHC, known as the High-Luminosity LHC (HL-LHC), is expected to further enhance the collider's capabilities, allowing scientists to delve even deeper into the fundamental constituents of matter and the forces that govern the universe.

"I feel that is an opportunity (for India). So yes, we should engage in these and we are engaging, it's not that we aren't. However, the room I see is large," said Sharma, the recipient of this year's Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award for her contribution to science and technology.

Sharma emphasised the importance of science in removing national barriers, as it had done for her and all the students who aspire to pursue science globally. (with PTI inputs)