When Archana Sharma joined Cern (or the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, as a permanent staff scientist in 2001 — the only Indian ever to do so — it was her proudest moment.
Cern hit the headlines for its “black hole” experiment and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that was built for the colossal experiment. The institute in Geneva, Switzerland — the Mecca of high-energy physics — is also the birthplace of the World Wide Web.
One of the things Sharma liked most was Cern’s summer programme for students of universities and institutes from across Europe. The basic goal of these short internships is to excite young minds and steer them towards a career in basic science, research and development. Knowing the amount of talent in India, Sharma thought that Cern could offer a similar programme for Indian students.
“I have been pursuing the goal of providing such an opportunity to students from India for the last five years,” says Sharma. Her perseverance paid off when Cern decided to extend the summer internship to a handful of Indian students starting this year.
There followed a rigorous process to select the institutes and students. Rather than widening the net, the search was limited to only a few institutes, including the National Institutes of Technology (NIT), Durgapur and Calicut, and Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, Delhi and Guwahati. Eleven students were selected, including four from NIT, Durgapur.
The students from the NITs were selected by special committees formed within the institutions while three others were chosen through a rigorous selection process from a large number of applications sent directly to Cern. The institutes bear all expenses for travel and stay at Geneva.
“When we called for applications, which were limited to best performing students, we received around 120 of them. It was tough to choose just four students,” says Swapan Bhattacharya, director, NIT, Durgapur.
“After I received the invitation letter from Cern, I felt rather nervous as I realised that I have been given the enormous responsibility of representing my country for the first time at the institute,” says Abhinava Chowdhury, final-year student of mechanical engineering at NIT, Durgapur. He, along with the others, is currently undergoing training at Cern.
“Last year, two of our professors visited Cern to start a collaboration. Cern scientists such as Archana Sharma, Jurgen Schukraft and John Elis also visited our institution. From that time onwards, I was waiting for an extraordinary thing to happen. My prayers were answered when we found a notice inviting applications for summer internship at Cern,” says Saptaparni Kumar, third-year student of information technology at NIT, Durgapur, and the only girl in the group.
The two-month programme, which started last month, involves participation in the day-to-day work of research teams, attending special lectures and visiting critical experiment areas within Cern, including a visit to the LHC. “It is a massive breakthrough not just for us but the whole country. A stint at Cern will open new horizons for students,” says Bhattacharya.
“Participating in the active research programme at Cern will provide outstanding scientific value, and the selected students will find working in a multi-disciplinary and multicultural environment an extremely enriching experience,” says Sharma.
During their stay at Cern, the students will be preparing a report on their work there, which they will submit at the end of their stay.
“While the students are bowled over by the technological advances and professionalism at Cern, the authorities there are impressed by the quality of our students,” says Bhattacharya, who visited the Geneva institute recently.
Sharma hopes the programme will in future gather strength and more and more students from across the country will benefit from it. With support from Cern and the departments of atomic energy and science and technology, Sharma hopes to have a “concerted and well co-ordinated” programme by 2010.
NIT, Durgapur, is already in talks with Cern and the Indian government to expand the programme. “We hope to send postgraduate and PhD students from next year, including in fields such as computing,” says Bhattacharya.
“Each of our future scientists and engineers is a powerhouse of talent, and it is our duty to make sure that they are not denied exposure to the frontiers of knowledge and cutting-edge technology,” says Sharma.
Chowdhury, whose dream is to “free India” from the energy crisis, has already got the opportunity. His summer at Cern will give him the grounding necessary to help achieve his dream.