Illustration featuring key people in the article below, focused on Madagascar

Madagascar’s path to neutrino physics

Miriama Rajaoalisoa originally planned to pursue a career in nanotechnology after earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar. But in 2015, a scientist’s lecture on neutrinos changed his mind. Rajaoalisoa was captivated by the elusive, ghostly particles described by the scientist. “That’s when I decided to get into experimental particle physics,” she says.

It wouldn’t be easy. There were no neutrino experiments in Madagascar, and it would be difficult to connect with experiments and physicists from other countries. Madagascar had access to high-speed internet through the East African Undersea Cable System, but the only way Malagasy students could connect to it was through outdated computers in noisy internet cafes interrupted by power outages. daily stream.

Yet Rajaoalisoa knew his dream was possible. It’s because the scientist who came to his university was someone who had done it before. One of the five Malagasy students of the very first African School of Physics, Laza Rakotondravohitra had paved the way for a doctorate by studying neutrinos.

Today, Rajaoalisoa is a doctoral student and member of the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment at the University of Cincinnati, and Rakotondravohitra, a medical physicist, still works to help Malagasy students study physics.

From Madagascar to Fermilab

It all started with the African School of Physics, a three-week program that teaches students aspects of theoretical, experimental and applied physics. Rakotondravohitra was one of 59 students who attended the first African School of Physics, in South Africa in 2010.

For Rakotondravohitra, the program has been both an eye-opening experience and a challenge. At their universities, he and his Malagasy classmates spoke French and Malagasy, but the professors at the physics school taught in English. Rakotondravohitra remembers spending an entire evening in the computer lab with one of his friends going over lessons to make sure they understood. “But we picked things up pretty quickly,” he says. “The physics is the same regardless of the language.”

After completing his master’s studies in 2012, Rakotondravohitra was accepted as an international researcher at the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

He thanks the organizers of the African school – Christine Darve, Kétévi Assamangan and their team – as well as Young-Kee Kim, then deputy director of Fermilab, for encouraging him to apply. “I will always be grateful for the leadership of the African School of Physics, as they really opened many doors for me,” says Rakotondravohitra.

While on fellowship, he lived in a dormitory on the Fermilab campus and participated in the MINERvA neutrino experiment under the supervision of Fermilab scientist Jorge Morfín. Working in the lab was daunting at first, he says. But then he met another international doctoral student, David Martinez, from Colombia. The two discovered that they had experienced similar struggles.

“It was difficult for us when we arrived,” says Rakotondravohitra. “We didn’t even know what we didn’t know.”

They had studied the theoretical side of physics, but unlike most of their peers in the United States, they had no experience with experiments. They had to learn how to run simulations, analyze data and operate a detector.

They did, both finishing their doctorates in 2015. One of their MINERvA colleagues, Steven Dytman, then a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, even flew to Madagascar for Rakotondravohitra’s thesis defense.

Subsequently, Martinez went to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago as a postdoctoral researcher and continued to participate in Fermilab experiments. Rakotondravohitra pursued an additional degree, specializing in medical physics, at Wayne State and Duke universities.

Help others

The duo stayed in touch and decided to work together to support students like them.

At first, they helped students from Madagascar and Colombia find and apply for scholarships to study physics in the United States. The students were brilliant, but none of their applications were accepted.

Rakotondravohitra and Martinez quickly realized that the missing ingredient was exactly what they had acquired during their fellowships: research experience.

They change course and focus on training students. Martinez gave them small projects related to neutrino programming and physics that they could work on remotely. “The students showed incredible enthusiasm for research,” says Rakotondravohitra. “They always deliver their work on time.”

With the additional experience under their belt, students were no longer turned away. To date, six of the team interns from Madagascar and four from Colombia have enrolled in graduate programs in the United States, and more are pursuing physics studies at institutions in other countries, including Japan and India.

“There are many students in Madagascar and other African countries who are very interested in a scientific career, but they do not have the opportunity to pursue one,” explains Manoa Andriamirado, a Malagasy doctoral student at the ‘Illinois Institute of Technology. “What [Rakotondravohitra and Martinez] do is really important. They changed my life.

Martinez, who is now an assistant professor in the physics department at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, says seeing the students succeed has been incredibly rewarding. “I think the scientific community is starting to see that there’s a lot of talent out there from these regions.”

The first African institution joins DUNE

Rakotondravohitra and Martinez also facilitated the participation of Malagasy students in neutrino research in another way.

In 2015, Rakotondravohitra contacted his former professor Roland Raboanary at the University of Antananarivo to see if he would be interested in joining Fermilab’s flagship neutrino project, the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, then under the generic name Experiment at the Long-Baseline Neutrino. Ease.

Raboanary and Rakotondravohitra, with advice from Martinez, applied, and that year Madagascar became the first African country represented in DUNE. “We are the only African country at the moment, but we hope others will join us,” Rakotondravohitra said.

Rakotondravohitra, who now works as a medical physicist in Texas, is now in the middle of a big new project: creating a lab in Madagascar where students can access resources, such as high-quality computers and a reliable internet connection. , to help them carry their research.

In 2019, Dytman, the MINERvA colleague who visited Rakotondravohitra’s alma mater during his thesis defense, worked with Rakotondravohitra to donate over 40 used computers from the University of Pittsburgh to the University of Antananarivo .

Today, Rakotondravohitra, Dytman, Martinez and Fenompanirina Andrianala, associate professor at the University of Antananarivo and member of DUNE, are working together to bring more equipment from the United States to Madagascar. The team hopes to have a new laboratory operational within two years.

Rakotondravohitra says he hopes the number of students in Madagascar who are successfully pursuing particle physics will continue to increase.

“My main hope is that every student succeeds and continues to help other students,” he says. “And all the students are motivated to come back to Madagascar one day.

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