The new generation of Indian scientists is world class. They deserve attention and funding: says Indian scientist Dr Archana Sharma

Jhansi’s Dr. Archana Sharma’s journey to the mecca of particle physics is full of firsts. In 2001, she was the first Indian to be recruited by CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory in Geneva. In 2012, she was the only Indian scientist involved in the discovery of the “God particle”. Today, she is a senior scientist at CERN where a complex 27 km long machine called the Large Hadron Collider has been restarted to search for the elusive dark matter and uncover the origins of the universe. Sharmawho recently became an author, talks to The Sunday Times about her latest book, ‘India’s Science Geniuses’
The book you recently co-wrote with a science writer Raman Spoorthy chronicles the work of 30 scientists from different parts of India. What made you choose this subject?
We always talk about scientific icons like Satyen Bose, Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. Very little is known about the new generation of scientists in our country. They are world class and they need some attention from the public and funding bodies.
What interesting stories did you discover while working on it?
Spoorthy and I sat down during the time of the pandemic – very early morning for me in Geneva, very late at night for her in Canada – to talk to featured scientists in India, at Earth time! We discovered many interesting anecdotes. One such story was that of Dr. Nisha Kannan, a young mother. Watching her baby sleep made her think about the role of sleep in our lives. Kannan studies how excess sleep in babies contributes to the growth of neural circuits in the brain. She is working with scientists in Japan, using the fruit fly as a model organism to determine what might be going on in babies’ brains.
Any chance of potential Nobel Prize winners here?
It’s hard to say, but one of the scientists we interviewed, Sivapriya Kirubakaran, associate professor at IIT Gandhinagar, told us how she once found a congratulatory note from Nobel laureate J Robin Warren in his inbox. Kirubakaran is trying to develop drug molecules to target the famous bacterium Helicobacter Pylori (H Pylori) present in our intestine. Australian doctors Warren and Barry Marshall won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2015 after discovering that Pylori causes peptic ulcers which increase the risk of cancer. Their discovery initially raised suspicion and Marshall had to drink a concoction of the bacteria to prove it. In his note, Warren wrote: “I hope that one day, without having to drink H.Pylori, you will receive the Nobel Prize.” Kirubakaran hopes she will one day hear the announcement of her Nobel Prize as she enjoys a masala dosa.
Today, more than 40% of STEM graduates in India are women. Are we finally closing the gender gap in science?
Women (in science) have come a long way, but we still have a very long way to go. You can still count the women Nobel laureates on your fingertips. Women are very gradually being recognized as 50% of the workforce to be mobilized to contribute to cutting-edge science, whether in research, extension or education. I think women’s expectations need to be raised and excellence assumed, which empowers women to perform at their best and perform at their best.
Young Indians are busy seeking jobs in companies with big salaries. You rarely hear that research is a favorite field.
Change is always slow and difficult, especially in a country like ours. That said, it’s hard to earn a good salary while you’re doing research. However, I am convinced that the challenges of finding cures for diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or innovating to improve people’s lives will stimulate national and international collaboration. And I see in the eyes of the young people I interact with, this desire to make a difference with their careers.
You once described yourself as a “good student with gold medals who lacked hands-on experience building scientific instruments” when you graduated. Is this the case for STEM students in India even today?
The scenario has changed drastically since the time I started my career in the 1980s. Today, young science enthusiasts can dig knowledge on the Internet, learn YouTube tutorials and ask questions of any expert in the world. The World Wide Web, invented at CERN by the way, has democratized learning.
With the Large Hadron Collider rebooting for the third time, tell us about the cosmic secrets you hope to unlock.
What we do at CERN is recreate the kind of cosmic soup that existed at the time of the Big Bang so that we can study the process by which matter was created. If we evaluate everything we know so far, it tells us that we only know 5% of how the world began. This is due to the behavior of galaxies. They move in such a way that there must be 95% more there, which we don’t know. This is called dark matter.
What are you currently working on?
Projects at CERN take a long time. I started a new project around 2008-09 based on a new technology called the Gas Electron Multiplier (GEMs). It took several years to ensure that the technology is mature and that the detectors will be able to withstand the radiation and add physical value to the experiment. I proposed three major GEM “stations” as well as nearly 40 institutions from 17 countries including India. GEMs began to shine on July 5, 2022, with the first beams from the Large Hadron Collider. It’s time to move on to bigger challenges.
How many Indian scientists are currently working at CERN?
India became an Associate Member of CERN in 2017 and a total of 130 Indians are now registered at CERN. In addition, around 250 other people of Indian origin from all over the world are also engaged in various scientific and technological activities related to CERN.
The popular American sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”, which followed the lives of two physicists and their friends, has been credited with inspiring American teenagers to get into physics. Do we also need more representation of scientists in popular media in India?
Yes, the scientists of our country must be presented as “cool” scientists and at the cutting edge of technology as one of the most “current” phenomena. Only then will teenagers find scientific research challenging and want to emulate their role models. Reflecting on scientific technology in a fun way in popular media in contact with the younger generation is imperative, for sustained development on all fronts. Imagine scientists being stars like those in Bollywood and cricket. The stadiums will be full!
The Covid-19 pandemic has posed an unprecedented challenge to humanity. But the rapid development of vaccines has drastically reduced the number of deaths and has shown us the power of science. Is it high time for developing countries like India to increase funding for scientific research?
Covid came like a thunderclap and indeed demonstrated the power of science and collaboration. One could not imagine how India had managed to meet the immense challenge of vaccinating such a large population. India’s image in the world as a scientific nation is rapidly changing, and it is indeed time to move forward to consolidate this momentum after the Covid-19 disaster.
Other books in preparation?
On July 4, CERN celebrated the 10th anniversary of the discovery of the Higgs boson and a day later we launched “Run 3” of the Large Hadron Collider at unprecedented energies. With all these world records around me, I am tempted to unravel some other mysteries of science, engineering technology that can benefit the younger generation of our country.

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