ICTP's Physics Without Frontiers (PWF) programme knows that there are aspiring physicists all over the world, some in places that lack access to a scientific community and training. PWF's mission is to help fill those gaps. The current calendar of Physics Without Frontiers events includes activities in over 34 countries, but when the programme launched ten years ago, it started with a workshop in Palestine. To mark this important anniversary milestone, ICTP contacted three alumni of PWF's first activities to discuss the impact of the programme on their careers. Their reflections on their experiences, what has happened since, and where they are now include appreciative memories of how PWF changed the course of their careers.
Working to inspire, train, and educate university students, PWF organizes a rich schedule of projects every year to help build the next generation of scientists. PWF is co-organized by Kate Shaw and Bobby Acharya, both particle physicists at ICTP and members of CERN's ATLAS experiment. PWF projects are made possible by a extensive volunteer network of scientists working all over the world, and each project is customized and led by scientists with connections to the region and universities where the activity is hosted.
Today's full calendar of PWF activities started with an activity 10 years ago, and many alumni of that first PWF event view it as a turning point in their career. Suhad Daraghmeh remembers her first experience with PWF, back in April 2012 at Birziet University in the West Bank, Palestine: a masterclass in particle physics for 20 young scientists that included a virtual visit to the ATLAS experiment control room at CERN. "After the Masterclass in 2012 I started digging deep for opportunities that could enrich my knowledge in particle physics," says Daraghmeh.
She found the CERN Summer Student Programme, applied and was accepted for the summer of 2013. "After coming back from CERN, I took a PWF course in particle physics with Dr. Kate Shaw and Professor Bobby Acharya, where I learned the main concepts and the basics of particle physics. I’ll never forget the course, especially meeting with such an inspirational person like Kate; it was a great opportunity to learn something new every moment." Daraghmeh attended a second PWF masterclass in 2015 as well as a Particle Physics Summer School at ICTP.
"Throughout my studies, my family encouraged me, they allowed me to travel alone to participate in many summer schools, and they provided me with everything," says Daraghmeh. "I got married during my master study and I am lucky to have an incredibly supportive husband. He is an auditor and he doesn't really understand much about nuclear physics, but he always asks how it is going and encourages me to continue my studies."
"Now I live with my husband and my son in Saudi Arabia, where I'm a team leader and physics teacher at an international school," says Draghmeh. "The PWF experience was a turning point in my life, it has opened many doors for me. From PWF, I knew more about opportunities in other countries and how to apply, and I had the chance to meet many scientists from all over the world. I hope one day I’ll be one of the PWF volunteers and can leave the same imprint in students' lives as PWF did for me.”
Draghmeh's fellow participant in the 2013 PWF course on particle physics was Ahmad Taninah, who is now in the last month of a PhD programme at Mississippi State University, USA. "I am focusing on low-energy theoretical nuclear physics," says Taninah. "Following that, I will work as a visiting assistant professor at Mississippi State University for a year, and I will be looking for opportunities for a postdoctoral experience in my field."
PWF had a big effect for this nuclear physicist: "That experience gave me a glimpse of what science abroad could be like," says Taninah. "The course in particle physics I studied in 2013 and the informative discussions with Dr. Shaw about experimental particle physics were my inspiration to apply for a research internship in Germany."
"I was lucky to get that internship in 2014 and thus have my first taste of working on a high-level research project," recalls Taninah. "Those experiences influenced my decision to pursue doctoral studies." Asked how he describes PWF to others, Taninah has a simple answer: "It opens the eyes to many chances and opportunities in science around the world."
Mohammed Faraj was also a participant in the first PWF workshop in particle physics in 2012, followed by the course in 2013, and he is now a postdoctoral researcher in particle physics at ICTP. "After finishing the particle physics course, I decided that I wanted to do my PhD study in high energy physics," says Faraj. A few years later, Faraj landed at the University of Udine in Italy, with the assistance of Shaw and thanks to a grant from the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS). Now with his PhD completed, Faraj is part of the ICTP-Udine ATLAS group, and is working on several analyses on data from the ATLAS experiment. He is already assisting other students from Palestine in fields close to particle physics, guiding them in their applications for PhD or Masters' programmes.
PWF played a big role in Faraj's career in several ways. "For many students in developing countries, the PWF is an excellent opportunity to expand our knowledge in topics in particle physics, condensed matter, math, etc. It covers subjects that are usually not part of our department courses," says Faraj.
Faraj echoes the words of Taninah and Daraghmeh as well: "PWF introduced us to lists of available scholarships in different universities and some advanced programmes in fields related to high energy physics organized in several institutes, such as the Diploma Programme at the ICTP."
Beyond exposure to new knowledge, connections made locally are an important effect of PWF activities, according to Faraj. "PWF gave many students, including myself, the opportunity to reach out to other students in several Palestinian universities and to professors from prestigious universities.
"In simple words," says Faraj, "for many students, PWF is like the light at the end of the tunnel."