by Fabiola Cacciatore
It's 2019 and seated at one of the high tables of CERN Restaurant 1 is Professor Bedangadas Mohanty, then a Scientific Associate working on the ALICE Experiment at CERN. Prof. Mohanty was sharing a coffee with Hans Peter Beck and Steven Goldfarb, then co-chairs of the International Particle Physics Outreach Group (IPPOG) and Dr. Tapan Nayak. This was the first time Prof. Mohanty heard of IPPOG and its efforts to introduce particle physics to classrooms around the world. He was surprised and intrigued by the group’s work.
From that day on, Prof. Mohanty was committed to making native India an official member of IPPOG. He shares not only the passion for particle physics, but also a keen enthusiasm to make this matter accessible to young students in his homeland and to bringing increased inclusion and diversity in the field.
For the next two years, despite the constraints of COVID-19, Prof. Mohanty pursued this commitment, convincing his colleagues in the National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER) in India of the benefits of membership. In 2021, during a primarily virtual IPPOG collaboration meeting, Mohanty signed the MoU addendum on Zoom from India, while co-chairs Goldfarb and Pedro Abreu signed at CERN in Geneva. This made India the most populous member of IPPOG, starting in 2022.
In April 2022, we had the opportunity and the honour to interview Prof. Mohanty.
He is a Professor of Physics at the School of Physical Sciences, NISER, Bhubaneswar. He is also currently the spokesperson of the India-ALICE-STAR Collaboration.
IPPOG chairs P. Abreu and S. Goldfarb and Professor Bedangadas Mohanty sign the remote collaboration due to Covid-19
1. Congratulations on joining IPPOG. You are the representative of India for the IPPOG collaboration. Please talk to us about your experience and what you do to improve the outreach in particle physics in your country.
BM: I joined Experimental High Energy Physics in 1998 as Ph.D student. I worked on the ALICE experiment at CERN and then moved on to my post-doc at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the STAR experiment at RHIC. Then I worked in ALICE at LHC at CERN. In between, in 2019, I spent a year as Scientific Associate at CERN. This is when I first met IPPOG’s leaders in the cafeteria. We discussed eventually membership of a large country as mine. Then, I came back to India, and I started the process for seeking approval from the funding agencies. In this case, it is the Department of Atomic Energy, who is the lead funding agency of particle and nuclear physics experiments at the LHC. I also got the approval from task forces coordinating the activities at CERN for India. My Institute agreed to pay the fee, so, after this process, India become a part of IPPOG. From our side, outreach is an important aspect, from the very beginning.
Our primary outreach activity in India is that of our faculty, including myself, visiting schools, colleges, and universities, giving popular scientific lectures, and describing recent updates of particle physics and nuclear physics. Typically, in a year, most of us give 2 or 3 talks.
The second sort of activity is the participation of many of our institutes in Open Science days. These opportunities inform students, teachers and the public about current activities in nuclear and particle physics.
A third important outreach activity are that of the outreach programs offered by the Department of Atomic Energy.
Finally, it is important to add that the science academies of India offer students summer projects in various institutes. Regularly our institute hosts summer students to come and work on a project in our lab for particle and nuclear physics. It’s quite fun to see the excitement when they get a signal from a detector, and we tell them that this is just a small scale component of the big scale detectors we use in our field.
2. What motivated you to join IPPOG? What do you think India will gain by being a member and what will India bring to the collaboration?
BM: I think IPPOG is one of the premier outreach groups and, in particle and nuclear physics research. In it, we all join together to maximize the expertise of each collaborator, so we can learn from each other’s experience. In that sense, IPPOG has beautiful resources that we can share with Indians students and our large population. They will all benefit of IPPOG resources.
As an example, IPPOG members offer beautiful virtual tours of their experiments. From here, students can explore, see, learn about the various labs. Furthermore, in IPPOG we have many experiments, such as ATLAS, CMS, Fermilab, the Proton Therapy facility in GSI, and this has pushed us even more to join.
We are currently writing our own long-term vision program and we want to replicate something similar in India, because as you know, India is a big country, and we have many groups participating in IPPOG. So, we are looking into organising our own chapter, similar to other large countries.
We are members of IPPOG’s flagship programme, International Particle Physics Masterclasses. Who knows… maybe one day one of our students can become a great scientist and contribute to extending and developing that programme.
What we can bring to IPPOG are bright minds from this huge, young population. We can bring skills. We also are bringing our experience of working in different regions, different positions in the experiments, and different cultures. I think that all these topics can enrich the IPPOG collaboration. We want to contribute our resource tools into the IPPOG database, as well.
3. Are the faculties at the university active in outreach in India? Could IPPOG membership affect this?
BM: Yes! What I have done as soon as we joined is to try to help to identify people who can take care of the northern region, the east, western and south regions. We have identified and shared the names with the IPPOG chairs and International Masterclass Coordinators, and they will now expand into these regions. We also have chosen professors from different institutes to make a balance between universities and institutes too. It will take a little time to understand what the impact is of our joining, but I suspect more faculties will gain interest to participate in the activities.
4. Participation in particle physics research can be considered diverse when looking at its international make up, yet there are clearly gaps in participation by minorities and women. In fact, women participation in CERN experiments is less than 25%. Do you have any thoughts on how to improve that?
BM: Good question! We are taking steps in this direction. The High Energy Physics community is one of the first scientific communities to identify this issue. There are gender parity groups that we have created, lead by women scientists. Yet, we agree it remains an important issue, yes. Our India groups in High Energy Physics is involved in raising awareness through gender sensitisation activities, talks, panel discussions including speakers from various disciplines including science historians, philosophers of science, science journalists, social scientists, and physical scientists. In 2019 in the University of Hyderabad, they created the “Gender in Physics working group of IPA (Indian Physics Association)” specifically to address this issue.
On the collaboration side, we made an annual event to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, on February 11th. In the last 2 years we have organized special masterclasses for girl students on these dates. We also created a brochure for women scientists who are working in the ALICE and STAR Collaboration. We did it because we wanted to celebrate their work and their success. We are also going to organize an international conference dedicated to women in physics and we have many institutes making a proposal for this conference.
We are also trying to make the accommodation and travels for women scientists more comfortable. Although this can also be an issue for men, traveling far away and leaving families for periods because of the job. But, for women this can become a more significant problem. We would like to facilitate and support women who are in the field of science and need to travel for their job.
All this is improving. In our biannual symposium in energy physics, we also discussed this topic, so our community is aware about the issue. We also want to be sure that people in leadership positions are proportional, as far as possible, to help make a balance between women and men.
5. What are the biggest challenges you see facing science education and outreach?
I will talk about the specific context of India. First of all, recruitment in science at the university and college levels is, somehow, very low. It is my opinion that this is an important problem and we need to find a way to make an increase, soon.
Secondly, faculty at the universities and colleges, as well as teachers of secondary schools, not only spend most of their time teaching, but also in administration. As a result they are not able to find spare time to get acquainted with the latest trends in science. Such knowledge not only makes them better teachers, but it enables them to generate and maintain the interest of the students.
Performing outreach challenges the faculty to get themselves up to date and to provide interesting material for the students. We are trying to organise these activities, but we have to face the numbers. It is practically difficult to manage so many teachers at once. It’s a good thing that there is a positive response to our initiative, but our capacity is limited.
That is a very positive challenge and we will be making every effort to rise to it. We really appreciate all the enthusiasm we now see toward outreach. So, our effort now is too build a programme and an infrastructure that can handle the challenge,.
6. Are there any science festival in India?
BM: Yes, there is the Science Day. India has a Nobel laureate in physics called C. V. Raman, who did very important work in the study of light scattering, called the Raman effect. We mark this day on 28 February and it is celebrated everywhere in India. We also celebrate other worldwide events, such as dark matter day, held each year on 31 October.
Further a mega science exhibition called "Vigyan Samagam" was organised by Indian Departments of Atomic Energy and of Science and Technology and CERN for the Indian public to showcase the 7 mega science projects in which India participates. The exhibitions typically stay for a month or two and they were distributed all over India.