Most of us grew up thinking that a passion for Physics leads to teaching or engineering only. Today, Chilufya highlights a different career path for those interested in Particle Physics;
Hi Chilufya, it is wonderful to finally speak with you. Been hearing your name from the many mutual friends that we share. Thanks for joining us today
Hello Winnie, I am happy to connect with you. I am glad to share my work and my story. Thanks!
For the sake of our audience, who is Chilufya?
My full name is Chilufya Mwewa from Zambia. I am currently based in Geneva – Switzerland but I was born and bred in Zambia; I did all my early education there. After finishing my bachelor of Science in physics, I moved to South Africa where I joined the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) to pursue a postgraduate diploma in Mathematical Sciences. I then went ahead to obtain a master’s in physics from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and then a Ph.D. from the same university.
At the end of my Ph.D., I got a brief Postdoc position for 3 months at UCT before moving to Geneva in November 2020 to take on my current Postdoc role with one of the national labs in the United States. I currently am a Research Associate with Brookhaven National Laboratory but I am based at the European Organization for Nuclear Research – CERN. My research is in Experimental Particle Physics.
You are our first guest in the experimental particle physics field! We are keen to learn about what this journey has been like for you. Why particle physics?
I didn’t know anything about particle physics until my final year of undergrad. Growing up, I knew that a career in physics was not something parents or guardians envisioned for anyone. My focus was on doing something related to medicine. During my high school days, I enjoyed physics very much and passed it with a lot of ease. But, it wasn’t something I could envision as a career. That never crossed my mind. We had career guidance sessions but these are not options that ever came up during such sessions.
When I joined university, I failed chemistry, I wasn’t strong at it at all. But I was doing great in mathematics and physics. I had to redo the courses but I was still determined to go for a medical career. A friend of mine from the physical sciences stream talked to me about opportunities in physics as heard from his lecturer. I decided to join the physical sciences stream, not knowing what my life was going to be like, haha. In my mind, I still thought that I could only become a Physics teacher, which was still okay.
It was in my final year that I started learning about opportunities in research. I participated in the African School of Physics and learned about CERN. There was a lot of studying I needed to do in between, as I mentioned earlier, until where I am right now, working for a United States National Lab and based at CERN.
I am happy that you are giving young physics lovers career options other than the known teaching.
Let’s talk about some of the challenges you have faced on your career journey in experimental particle physics
I am not sure if I can pick just one, haha. Once you go through the challenges, they stop being as serious as they seemed before. I feel like I have been lucky to meet opportunities that have helped me reach where I am.
All in all, Physics in itself is a very demanding subject. One has to be willing to fully indulge themselves and give more time to acquiring the necessary problem-solving skills. There was some point in my early years when I was not motivated because I didn’t even know what I was to use this passion for. Everything seemed challenging, especially from the theoretical side of the subject!
I also remember how some of my lecturers and many other people didn’t believe in me. Applying to the African School of Physics was my stepping stone in this career. The opportunity was not advertised in our department but I happened to hear about it from some of the students that were told about it. While talking to one of my lecturers, he said I didn’t qualify because the head of the department had already chosen who was to apply. I secretly applied and was one of the four people who were chosen for the opportunity. I didn’t get funding from the school but got the one that was supporting women in Physics.
This must have been very challenging for you! How were you able to find the motivation to push forward?
I just had to believe in myself and take all opportunities around me, even when some people I looked up to did not believe in me. One has to develop a thick skin for those days when no one believes in you. Participating in the African School of Physics was such a humbling experience that made me believe in myself and keep pushing.
My other pushing factor is my background. I am not from a very well-to-do family. My father passed away when I was 12, so I was raised by a single mom. We had it tough, some times we lived in townships that were not so great. It was challenging for my mom to get all the resources to raise us. I remember us staying in a one-roomed house with my mom and my sister. Looking at where I have come from, I always get motivated to work harder and keep pushing.
Tell us about some of the moments when you felt appreciated as a woman in particle physics
My hard work has been rewarded through being given platforms to speak on behalf of the experiments that I work for. For example, for people to have confidence in me to speak on behalf of CERN-ATLAS, one of the experiments we are working on.
I also received the ATLAS Ph.D. grant which is normally given to only 3 people around the world every year. This grant was to enable me to be based at CERN for two years. I was also proud and happy to have a Ph.D. scholarship from Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD).
We have seen Chilufya in the lab and at school. What do you do outside those environments?
I enjoy traveling, visiting new places, and spending time with my family. The moments when we just cuddle up on the couch and watch our favorite family shows are pretty special to me.
Do you have a favorite quote?
One quote that has stuck with me is from French Chemist Louis Pasteur. He said, “chance favors a prepared mind”. This quote encourages me to stay prepared every day. You never know when insight will come your way. It’s in the little things, you know!
How would you encourage a young African girl who wants to join experimental particle physics?
Physics is such a wonderful field. There’s so much more you can do with your passion in this field. You just have to be prepared and look out for opportunities. Sometimes things work out and other times they don’t but don’t give up because it’s all part of the preparation. Always strive to bring out the best version of yourself to the table.
Thank you very much, Chilufya, for taking the time to speak with me. I have learned a new field in physics. Who knew experimental particle physics existed? I wish you all the best with your work.