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A Journey of Joy and Uncertainty in Physics

A Journey of Joy and Uncertainty in Physics

This article is the third in Series of articles Written and co-published by black physicists Physicist as part of #BlackInPhysics Week 2022, an event dedicated to celebrating black physicists and their contributions to the scientific community, and to reveal a more complete picture of what a physicist looks like. This year’s theme is “Joy in the Diverse Black Community.”

I like to believe we embody the names we’ve given. And since my name is Bahij, I’ve always defaulted to that state of mind, even in periods of uncertainty. People have commented time and time again that my name is so apt (“Wow, you’re literally so happy, just like yours!”) and luckily, with a childlike personality, I’ve always carried my own.

Image provided by Joyful Mdhluli

Born in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, which is known locally as “the place where the sun rises”, she moved to the “Eden of Africa” ​​- Limpopo Province – at the age of eleven. But as I neared the end of high school, fear added to my joy as I had to decide how to spend the rest of my life. I was scared because I didn’t know what was in there, but I was happy because I knew I was going to find out.

I wanted to go to college, but as the first member of my family ever to do so, I knew I had to carry the burden and privilege of making my family and community proud. I also knew there was a lot I didn’t know. While ruminating on uncertainty, I stumbled upon a scientist — a physicist — who makes not knowing a good thing. Because if you go into physics, it’s your job to look for the answers.

As someone with a frustratingly infinite amount of curiosity, I felt that physics would give me the space to finally extend myself beyond the limits of my environment, social conditions, and perceived possibilities. Although my mother is a schoolteacher, my father has been unemployed all my life, and only one of my three older siblings works full time. Just going to university would be a huge achievement.

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In 2011 I started working towards my BSc in General Science, majoring in Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She later earned honors, followed by a master’s degree in nuclear solid-state physics, which she completed with distinction in 2017. She then began her PhD program, studying photonic materials that could be used in photomultiplier tubes in particle detectors, and characterizing them using neutron and gamma radiation in Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, and the Cobalt-60 facility at CERN.

Going into physics, I was literally given the opportunity to see worlds beyond my own borders. This is because it was during my Masters that I got on a plane for the first time, to experiment with collaborators in Spain. We were trying to induce magnetism in diamond by irradiating our samples with protons from a tandem accelerator before characterizing our samples using atomic force microscopy and magnetic force.

On that trip, during which I saw some amazing culture, architecture, and landscapes, I also discovered my love for travel. Since then, I’ve traveled to New Zealand, Russia, Portugal, Switzerland and France, and in each case experienced cultural and societal shocks that made me understand how far South Africa still has to go to catch up with the rest of the world. I also realized on those trips that very few female black eyes could see what I was seeing.

In my desire to extend my experience and privilege to more young Africans, I have discovered my joy in education and mentorship. She began teaching high school physics and mathematics and began participating as a judge in outreach programs such as the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists and the Nka’thuto Edu Propeller Expo. My participation allowed me to interact with some of the bright young minds in South Africa and tell them more about the beautiful, boundless world of science.

I was later asked to record some of my experiences on the Young Academy of Science South Africa blog, which in 2018-19 has led me to share the lessons I learned and the feelings I had as a Masters and PhD student. I’ve written about embracing our cultural diversity while appreciating the commonalities, such as scientific research, that bring us all together. I also regretted people’s misconceptions about science and celebrated the journey of finding my fellow Black Sisters in Science.

I now sit on the Strategic Planning Committee for Black Women in Science, a community of black researchers that aims to advance women’s participation in STEM fields. I am also the secretary of the South African Women in Physics Committee, which encourages young women to go into physics. All of these roles have added a sense of belonging and joy to my life.

Addressing difficulties

But all journeys and life decisions come with as much struggle as joy. In 2020, during my third year of PhD studies, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In addition to wrestling with the transformations I had wrought in society, I found myself fighting my own sense of purpose. During those moments of prolonged deep reflection, I realized I had lost some of my joy. I simply felt that I had nothing to show for my physics work.

To make matters worse, our Dubna collaborators were unable to send us relevant samples due to logistical issues related to the pandemic. My experiment was a failure, and I was failing too. And worst of all, my curiosity felt detached from my Ph.D. I realized I didn’t want to continue, and there didn’t seem to be enough drive and motivation in the world to keep me going. And because I don’t believe in going through with something just for the sake of it, I stopped.

For three months as the pandemic began, I couldn’t set foot in my lab. Even when I came back, my experiment didn’t work. And with limits on the number of people allowed to work in person, getting set up to work again has been difficult. Attempts to get into labs at other universities failed, leaving me so stressed that I ended up having panic attacks every day. My physics career hit rock bottom.

Around that time, a physicist, who was not my PhD supervisor, asked me about my academic progress. I originally met her while attending a symposium in the Witwatersrand in 2018, where she spoke about her research in high energy physics. After I talked to her about my situation, she offered a solution, which was to change the direction of my Ph.D. As a result, I am now analyzing data captured by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider ALICE detector.

My conversation with that physicist felt as if the universe was trying to tell me that my physics journey wasn’t over yet. I realized that I didn’t have to keep doing the same thing and that it was okay if everything in life wasn’t completely nailed. That’s why I’ve always appreciated Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle—in fact, it’s tattooed on my inner wrist. It reassures me that although there may always be uncertainty, it shouldn’t stop me from moving on with my life or making decisions.

I will choose certain paths; Some bring me joy, some don’t. I now realize that if I hit the last track, it’s okay to turn around and start finding my happiness in physics again. That’s how I finished switching PhD projects in late 2020, and joined the SA-ALICE group at iThemba LABS in Cape Town. analyzes the production of electroweak bosons and heavy quarks while also helping to upgrade the ALICE experiment at CERN.

Shifting my PhD focus — completely abandoning a project I’d been working on for three years to pursue something completely different — was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. The change was difficult, as I had to learn a lot of new concepts and skills at full speed. Fortunately, I’m now in the final stretch of my PhD – in fact, I’ve written several supposedly “final” versions of my dissertation that I wish were more absolutes than ultimate present.

However, I had the pleasure of exploring the endless possibilities that physics brings, all while learning, guiding, and mentoring myself. And when I finally complete my Ph.D., I look forward to the beautiful and enigmatic future my career in physics will bring.

Joyful Mdhluli is a high-energy experimental physicist working towards his PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.


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