Interview with Dr Archana Sharma

Dr Sharma is a particle physicist working at the CERN in Geneva.

What is your job/ career day to day?

I build detectors, radiation detectors that serve as the eyes of our experiments, looking at the collisions of the large hadron collider. So my job really is to make sure that these detectors work, and we are also producing detectors for the future. In addition to that, I also work for international relations where I work with international organisations like UNESCO, the United Nations, WHO etc. and lastly I head the engagement office of the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at CERN which looks at the engagement of the 250 odd institutions that work together in our collaboration. 


Leading on from that, what is your favourite part about your career?

The favourite part is that I get to learn every single day. I interact with people who are experts in their field from all around the world, and I think that this is very unique because it’s not repetitive at all. Every single day brings a new challenge and we have to find solutions to that challenge. It’s a constant game and I enjoy playing games so I really love that. 


Since you mentioned challenges, were there any moments that you felt that your career wasn’t the best choice for you? How did you get through that and what did it feel like?

Well, there is no path which is a bed of roses. It is really about tackling the challenges that come your way. Initially, you’ve chosen a career of which you have no guarantees of the future, particularly of sustainable, let’s say, employment. Physics is not really the top top in terms of giving immediate rewards. The challenges have been intimidating technology when I changed continents, when I came to Geneva. Indeed, my preparation wasn’t of the order that was expected over here, so I did have to learn and relearn many things over. Learning French and even following courses, speaking to technicians who only speak in French– all that was a learning curve. I’ve been busy learning essentially all my life. I take challenges as learning opportunities and the mental gym, so difficulties, yes, and let’s say frustrations and disappointments are part of the journey. 


There is a certain amount of grit that is needed in our careers.


Did you face any challenges because of your identity- gender, ethnicity, etc.?

If I say no, I would be lying to myself and to you too. As we grow up, even if we have support and confidence from our parents, society does not take girls seriously. Especially when I grew up, people would imagine- “she’s too educated, who would marry her?” In the physics department, boys would mock me, “Oh, she’s going to get the Nobel prize!” There were a huge number of jabs at me. You need the grit in you to clench your teeth and carry on. A woman has to work at least twice or thrice as hard for her male colleagues to take her seriously. If you’re gentle and polite, then you’re too gentle and polite. If you’re aggressive and make your point, you’re too aggressive. There is never a “prescription” of how a woman should behave so that she is seen beyond her gender. We just have to keep ourselves very motivated. And what I’m doing is extremely important to me. I have been so fortunate to work at CERN.


What are your thoughts on gender disparities in STEM? Why do they exist and what can we do to reinforce women and their self-esteem?

That’s a good point- it’s the self-esteem that begins from society. And it’s nobody’s fault, because the way civilization has been developing is that, even if women have a very important role, the tradition that they need to be “nurturers” while the men go out and provide- that distinction has been made very carefully over the years. We suffer from an unconscious bias, for women and men. If you look at our language- we have to proactively change the way we address a “spokesman” to a “spokesperson”. And I was very impressed by the fact that you had this event- Potenti’ELLE in your school- where we were talking about it. Biases exist everywhere. There is a natural break in a woman’s journey or career if she decides to have a family, and that needs to be taken in stride to make space for her when she comes back. Talking about it, having role models speak about this is crucial. I find that Switzerland is making very good progress. We are making progress, but we have to keep marching on.


In your personal view, will we ever reach this equality?

I’m very hopeful, Pavi, because if I look at my own colleagues from Scandinavia, for example, it is so stark. There is little difference between how a man would conduct himself in a professional setting and a woman would conduct herself in a professional setting. In my own experience, I would sit all cramped in a corner in a meeting. I would think three times before opening my mouth, worried I would make a mistake. My posture- the way you sit at a table says a lot. And many Scandinavian countries demonstrate that it is possible. 


Do you have any advice for girls or anyone looking to enter STEM?

We should look at challenges as the mental gym. Don’t start thinking “Oh my god, how am I going to overcome this?” Every problem comes with a solution. We just have to find the way there. We need all the young girls to write in the software of their brains what their solution is. Your solution might be different to mine. My circumstances are different, my family is different, my way of learning is different, and we need to account for that. If it’s a big problem of the planet, or a small one in the classroom like the choice of subjects: you can connect it in your heart, for the rest of your life, that that’s where you have to go- that STEM is a tool with which you can have a great impact on society and on the planet.