[GUEST BLOG] Of Particles and Possibilities – Chilufya Mwewa

During my school days, I had great interest in science, especially physics, because my physics teacher was very good at explaining concepts and laboratory illustrations were very interesting. Despite my interest in physics and how well I performed in this subject, I never thought I would make a career out of it. I intended to be a medical doctor.

When I went to the University of Zambia, I didn’t make it to medical school because I failed chemistry. I was disappointed, but I knew it was all because I didn’t study enough. I was still living in the comfort of high school days where I understood every concept in class and managed to do well in exams, but in University one has to study hard and widely.

Chilufya Mwewa

Anyway, I needed to choose what to do next. I gave it a lot of thought, and with the encouragement of one of my friends, I decided to take up physics since I showed better aptitude for this and mathematics than chemistry. At this point, I had no idea what a career in physics entailed since it wasn’t viewed as a prestigious or financially rewarding career in the society I grew up in. Though, many saw it as a very difficult subject and took their hats-off to whoever pursued it. I pressed on regardless of these odds and in 2010, just before my graduation, I went to the African School of Physics – a school organised by CERN <Add a short definition here) for African students.

This school opened up a world of opportunities and I suddenly realised what a powerful career path I was on. It brought a lot of curiosity to life in me and I considered taking up a career in medical physics or particle physics. In 2011, I went to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town for a Postgraduate diploma where I was further exposed to various aspects of mathematics and physics. And I did my project in particle physics, supervised by Dr Andrew Hamilton – a lecturer at the University of Cape Town (UCT) at the time. I later completed my Master of Science at UCT with Dr Hamilton who then encouraged me to apply for the CERN summer school in 2013.

My first trip to CERN was a mind-blowing experience and it gave me an even greater desire to be part of the big picture- the understanding of our universe! After the summer school, I stayed at CERN collaborating with members of the ATLAS experiment on my MSc research, courtesy of the SA-CERN NRF funding. My MSc research involved the search for the invisible decay of the Higgs boson – the fundamental particle responsible for the mass of all fundamental particles like the electron. I later decided to pursue a PhD in particle physics at UCT supervised by Dr Hamilton and Dr Sahal Yacoob. My supervisors encouraged me to apply for the prestigious ATLAS PhD grant and I got it!

Because of this grant, I have now been based at CERN for over one year, working on the upgrade of the ATLAS detector’s small wheels and the search for same sign WW bosons – fundamental particles in particle studies. While based at CERN, I can easily work with the members of the ATLAS personnel on the projects I’m involved in.

I’ve learned a lot and I still have a lot more to learn. I am doing my best to make the most of this opportunity and the next thing that I’m considering is using the skills I have acquired to contribute positively to some aspect of the development of my country Zambia and Africa at large.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity to be part of the CERN community being motivated daily by the great physics minds around me. This award, to me, is like a recognition of my potential and it’s in a way awakened the desire to work extra hard.

Physics is the most fundamental science and an important driving force in all aspects of science and technology and it’s therefore imperative that we understand it for the wellbeing and future of mankind and our universe at large.

All this doesn’t mean that physics is easy for me, but I’m obviously not here by accident and I’m grateful to my supervisors, my husband, my mum and the rest of my family and friends who have constantly encouraged me. Physics can be difficult but it’s doable, interesting and a very rewarding career both to one pursuing it and for the world. I think physics needs more people investigating it; and young boys and girls should be well-informed about it and consider taking it up as a career. Most African countries are currently not involved in any of the exciting physics/engineering/computing at CERN and I hope that in the near future, that gap can be bridged. Because CERN is at the frontline of science and technology and exposing young Africans to it could be one of the ingredients to building a better Africa.

Written by: Chifulya Mwewa, Particle Physicist at CERN