Newswise – The 7thth The African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications (ASP) will take place in person at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, South Africa from 28 November to 9 December 2022. Teams of leading physicists from national laboratories and universities and other institutions in the US, Europe, Asia and Africa will introduce more than 70 African doctoral students to physical theories, experiments and technologies.
Participants will learn from the experts and explore the role physics plays in a variety of careers and applications – from space exploration to medicine, materials science and elementary particle physics experiments. Participants will also interact with educators and policy makers to expand interest in science across the African continent.
“The main purpose is to encourage African students to pursue careers in physics by providing them with individual mentoring,” said Kétévi Assamagan, a physicist at the DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and a member of the ASP organizing committee.
The two- or three-week “school program” takes place every two years and has (virtually) traveled through South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda, Namibia and Morocco before landing in South Africa again this year. Students are competitively selected by an international committee of physicists, taking into account funding agency requirements, female to male ratio, geographical balance across Africa, and promotion of candidates from the “least developed countries” in Africa, as identified by the United Nations, Assamagan said.
But the program, he noted, has grown to serve in many other ways.
“It is a collection of carefully designed ongoing activities in support of physics education and research in Africa,” he said.
For example, since 2016, the organizing committee has been running development programs for African educators (during one week) and outreach programs for African high school students (during another week) in parallel with the graduate program. The host country can select up to 70 teachers to participate, and outreach to secondary schools near the ASP venue typically reaches 1000-2000 students in grades 10-12. These efforts are supported by the host country’s government funding bodies.
ASP also maintains a network of alumni and mentors to provide participants with expanded opportunities long after they first attend the educational and interactive school.
“Many African students are interested in studying different areas of physics but may not have access to opportunities for specialized learning,” Assamagan said. “The African School of Physics offers African students these opportunities and a network to further their careers. Through this program we hope to inspire young physicists to continue working in their respective fields.”
“Many participants give back to their communities in Africa and become collaborators on international projects — including research projects at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the other national laboratories,” Assamagan added.
Dividends for society and science
Alan Stone, a physicist and program manager in the DOE Office of Science, was impressed when he first heard about the program in 2018,” he said. “It’s different, by bringing the experts to the students.”
The program was run on a tight budget, with contributions from Brookhaven Lab and a number of international partners. Stone worked to find additional funding from the DOE Office of High Energy Physics to “remove barriers” and help support US-based instructors and internships.
“My interest is in supporting faculty so that program organizers can spend more of their money on students. And I think it would be very valuable if we sent some American students to participate because they will learn too.”
“But it’s equally important,” he remarked, “not to just walk away [the participants] after two or three weeks, but select some of them to do a three or six month internship where they can get hands-on experience in a National Lab.”
The goal, he said, is not to “poach” African students to work in the US, although some may end up doing so, but rather to provide opportunities and access that will pay off long-term for science.
“Getting these students interested in something that they can then use either in the US or in their home countries — to create jobs and generate more interest — that’s the knock-on effect that we’re really interested in,” he said.
Support that increases participation in basic research around the world expands the pool of people to draw from to address a wide range of scientific and technological challenges both in our country and abroad, he noted.
A growing network
DOE’s Stone pointed out that the program and its intelligence efforts have a multiplier effect.
“It’s not just about teaching the students – they’re also teaching the teachers. And each teacher will reach 30 students or more,” he said.
The influence of the alumni also radiates outwards.
“We now have over 500 alumni,” Assamagan said. “Many have continued their studies to pursue PhDs and embark on careers in academia, industry, education and medicine.”
Alumni use their technical knowledge to work in their home countries and abroad. Some have even ended up at the Brookhaven Lab for hands-on experience.
The Brookhaven Lab’s PHENIX collaboration at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) – a DOE Office of Science user facility for nuclear physics research – was the goal of Bernard Mulilo, a 2010 ASP graduate who was at the time a graduate student at the RIKEN laboratory in Japan was . Mulilo spent a month at Brookhaven Lab, completed his Ph.D. PhD research at PHENIX and is now a full time lecturer and researcher at the University of Zambia where he is developing a heavy ion physics program.
“We hope to see him back at Brookhaven Lab, maybe for the new sPHENIX experiment at RHIC, or for the future Electron-Ion Collider (EIC),” Assamagan said.
The ASP also hired current Brookhaven particle physicist Diallo Boye as an undergraduate student at the Brookhaven Lab in 2012. He joined the Lab in 2020 as a postdoc after a series of internships and appointments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European CERN laboratory.
“I am very proud of everything our alumni have achieved and continue to achieve,” said Assamagan. “They bring many innovative ideas to make real change in their communities and in their respective fields.”
The trainers are also very proud of their role in the program. Patrick Skubic and Horst Severini, both high-energy physicists at the University of Oklahoma (OU) and members of the ATLAS collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider, have been part of ASP since 2012. They began supporting distributed computing efforts in Ghana in 2012 and have since served as teachers and supported ASP computing tutorials.
“The computer tutorials are generally very well received by students and consistently receive some of the highest ratings in the school,” said Skubic.
Severini added, “Students enjoy learning how to start performing physics tasks in a distributed computing environment and how to apply this knowledge to their own school and research work.”
As a representative responsible for ASP computing support in general, Severini has been conducting site visits since 2014 to ensure that the computer and network infrastructure at the school site can support all computer tutorials and exercises throughout the program.
DOE’s Stone noted that some of the DOE funding helped introduce larger computer screens, allowing students who might otherwise only have access to a cellphone to interact with algorithms and graphics data.
Logistical challenges go beyond the area of technology. The organizers had planned for the 6th edition of the program to take place in person in the summer of 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way. This program was eventually moved to an all-virtual format in 2021.
As this year’s program prepares for a fully in-person experience, the Organizing Committee will continue to monitor the COVID-19 conditions around the venue to ensure the safety of all attendees.
“We look forward to personally welcoming our students and educators again this year,” said Assamagan. “We hope to reinvigorate the networking and discussions among students, scientists and policymakers that will help expand Africans’ interest in physics.”
As Christine Darve, Engineering Scientist at the European Spallation Source and ASP Co-Founder, Lecturer and Member of the Program’s International Organizing Committee, noted: “The African School of Physics program has been carefully selected from its inception to capture the needs of African society. Our program is continually adapted to the new host country, with a broader educational outreach for universities and policymakers, along with more up-to-date courses – for example in high-performance computing, energy and environmental issues.
“With the ambition to maximize its achievements, the ASP opens the door to African talent and enables large-scale research infrastructures like the proposed African Light Source, while empowering universities and strengthening industries,” she said.
Assamagan and Darve maintain the ASP website, which aims to improve ASP efforts and develop open-source courses, including an archive of webinars recorded during the pandemic on topics such as particle accelerators, light sources, and neutron sources. “This digital component improves the sustainability of the project,” said Darve.
The site also contains a variety of other resources for interested students, faculty, and sponsors. Selected participants will receive full support for their travel, accommodation and meals for the two-week program.
In addition to support from the US Department of Energy and the Brookhaven Lab, ASP received significant sustained support from the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Italy, the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Institute of Physics, and Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN). A number of other international agencies and organizations have also made contributions.
Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the largest single funder of basic science research in the United States and works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. Visit science.energy.gov for more information.
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