Meenakshi Narain: A Physicist Working With Particle Accelerators and Helping Discover the Higgs Boson

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Meenakshi Narain

Professor Meenakshi Narain is an experimental high energy physicist. She works with particle accelerators, currently with the CMS experiment, one of two large general-purpose particle physics detectors built on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, to study the interactions of matter at a fraction of a second after the big bang.

She says the ultimate goal is to illuminate the character of physics at these early times of the universe. She was instrumental in the discovery of the top quark in 1995. In 2012, Narain had a significant involvement in the discovery of the Higgs Boson.

Presently, Ms. Narain is co-leading the effort to establish the vision for opportunities at the collider in year 2023 and beyond.  Narain is engaged in research and development towards the construction of the innermost part of detector using silicon sensors. Her research also deals with the analysis of large data sets and provides an excellent training ground for students in data science.

Mr. Narain has supervised and mentored numerous students and postdocs, out of which about 35% are women. She is involved in outreach to promote science education and encourage participation in physics by women. She continues to invest her efforts in mentoring and obtaining resources to establish opportunities for young scientists.

Ms. Narain received her PhD in physics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She joined the Brown faculty in 2007 having previously taught at Boston University. She is a visiting Professor at IIT, Mumbai; Adjunct Professor at NISER, Bhubhaneshwar; and the local faculty contact for Khorana-Bose Scholars Program. She serves as an advisor for the women faculty and postgraduate students at the Mahatma Gandhi Degree College, Gorakhpur, India.

Narain is a Fellow of the American Physical Society. She has been a Wilson Fellow at Fermilab, and a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Harvard University. She has received a Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education grant, Major Research Infrastructure grants, and the CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. She is also a recipient of the Outstanding Junior Investigator Award from the US Department of Energy. Her current research is supported by the DOE. She is a co-author of approximately >500 peer-reviewed journals, and has given numerous public lectures and invited conference presentations.

INDIA New England News: Please tell our readers about your work and what you enjoy most about it.

Meenakshi Narain: As a Professor of Physics, I am fortunate that I can pursue my passion for research and teaching at the same time. I really enjoy teaching and mentoring students, especially female students. Given the barriers (both cultural and societal) and unconscious biases, female students in STEM fields often need role models that they can identify with and who can also serve as their champions. It gives me enormous joy to see young kids who come fresh from high school mature into confident adults and to impress on them a scientific way of thinking. This is the most rewarding part of my work.

My research in experimental high energy physics seeks to answer the age old question “where did we come from and why are we here?”  By studying the particles created after the big bang and their interactions (simulated in a particle accelerator), we have been able to discover new features of nature. Two of the discoveries that I am most proud of are the Top Quark and the Higgs Boson. I was part of the team which discovered the top quark in 1995 at Fermilab. Then, in 2012, we discovered the Higgs boson at CERN. The top quark is the most massive elementary particle known (as heavy as a tungsten atom) and the Higgs boson is responsible for giving mass to the other elementary particles such as electrons and quarks which are part of the atom (and us!). It has been exhilarating to participate in such discoveries.

Meenakshi Narain

INE: To which charitable, community and professional groups do you belong and why?

MN: I am a Fellow of the American Physical Society and I have held various leadership positions within CMS, the organization of some 5000 scientists and engineers from all over the world that runs one of the big detectors at CERN. I support and work closely with organizations (in Uttar Pradesh, India, managed by my extended family) which focus on making education accessible to all and enabling career opportunities. I am passionate about outreach to promote science education at all levels, especially to women and underrepresented minorities. I am engaged in STEM outreach activities to young women for a long time. As part of my vision to raise public awareness and appreciation for the role of science and its impact on our daily lives and the future of our society, I plan to engage the public by incorporating STEM activities at major music and art festival venues (for example WaterFire Providence in September 2018).

As in the past few years the issue of diversity has risen to prominence, I actively  promote a more inclusive and welcoming environment at the places that I work. I am a member of Sigma Xi and the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) groups at Brown and continue to advise them. As the diversity representative in the Brown Physics Department and the international CMS research collaboration (where only 16% of all scientists from 46 collaborating countries are women), I strive to understand the issues facing women in physics at all levels, from vastly different cultures and economic backgrounds, and provide solutions to help them realize their potential in a male-dominated field irrespective of geographic or cultural identity.

INE: What are your hobbies and interests?

MN: Sharing my passion for science (and the early universe) with whoever has the patience to listen to me, traveling, and “all things detective” [reading detective novels, watching detective plays/movies/series].

INE: In what way do you feel you have positively influenced or served the local community, your company/organization or professional field?

MN: My efforts in promoting diversity and mentoring students to broaden participation for female students in physics (& STEM), may have the most direct impact on my local community.

My research impacts society on many levels. Addressing questions at the microscopic scale and beyond has always required innovation and generates novel technical approaches which ultimately benefit society.  Some spinoffs are commonplace today – such as accelerators for cancer therapy, the www protocol, superconducting magnets for MRI machines, and applications of machine learning in Big data applications.

The diverse technological and analytical training in engineering, mathematics, computing and electronics that my students obtain in an international and collaborative environment is much sought after in many commercial sectors.

INE: What are your favorite books?

MN: “One Two Three . . . Infinity” by George Gamow

“The Little Prince” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character – Feyman and Leighton

INE: Your favorite quotes?

MN: “I, a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe.” – Richard P Feynman

“Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.”  The 14th Dalai Lama

Who inspires you the most?

I draw my inspiration from my grandfather and my parents. Growing up in Gorakhpur, UP, my late grandfather was ahead of his time in insisting on equal opportunities for girls and boys. My late mother encouraged my interest in math and science by appointing me as her science teacher.  My father continues to inspire us by his limitless energy and dedication over six decades (and counting) of selfless community service with an open mind.

INE: What core values do you try to live by?

MN:I value building respectful and inclusive communities, in which our passions and vision define us despite our imperfections.

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