Nepali Perspectives: Opening Science to Women

by Vikram Upadhyay

I was lucky enough to be involved in ICTP’s Physics Without Frontiers (PWF) 5-day winter school program on particle physics this past January hosted at Tribhuvan University, Nepal. After graduating in Physics from the University of Chicago, I got to work at CERN on the ATLAS Experiment for a year, where I also got interested in some of the outstanding outreach work being done by science communities like PWF. PWF’s winter school’s final day was open to the public and included a panel discussion on the status of women in science in Nepal, which brought some interesting issues to the forefront.


Students at Tribhuvan University in Nepal work with ATLAS data from CERN at the PWF workshop

It is a much seen phenomenon that women’s participation in the science faculties is lower in much of the world compared to men’s. We also see a trend of women and girls leaving the science fields as they climb up the higher education ladder. It would clearly be absurd to think that an entire gender is somehow innately less interested in any particular academic field. Environmental factors play a key role. For one, there are few women role models in the sciences. It is also a very common stereotype in some places that women are somehow just not smart enough for science. Growing up around such stereotypes surely can’t be good for a child’s self-confidence. Many girls drop-out because of low self-esteem, leading to fewer and fewer women graduates at higher levels. Their lower numbers in turn can implicitly make peers and professors think that women are somehow not interested enough or not good enough for science. This implicit bias can be hard to notice or admit, but it exists in our universities and our work places. These are just some of the issues common for women in science all around the world.

In Nepal’s context, many additional issues arise for women in science, leading to an even lower participation. It shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Nepal is a one of UN’s least developed countries (LDCs) and holds a patriarchal mindset. Nepal being agriculturally dependent and one of the least developed nations in the world means it hasn’t been able to provide many career options for science graduates. Because of lack of research institutions, and lower wages than for other careers, sciences in general are not preferred academic choices for most Nepalese. The phrase that gets thrown around here is “there’s no scope”, indicating a lack of opportunities for careers in science. Unemployment is a major issue in Nepal in general, and industry science jobs also barely exist. Teaching is the only obvious career option that graduates can realistically think of. And there being only 10 universities in Nepal, there are simply not enough positions to be filled, which are underpaid in the first place. All of this has led students to shy away from pure science fields, as they don’t translate well into careers here. In the midst of this, most intermediate level science graduates move to engineering and medical sectors as they provide better job security.

With One Workshop, A Career Was Launched

by Zipporah Wanjiku Muthui

My name is Zipporah Wanjiku Muthui, and I am from Kenya. I’d like to share my story of how my career prospects changed completely after attending the 2013 Career Development Workshop for Women in Physics, in Trieste, Italy, as it may be an inspiration to many.

After I completed my Master’s in Physics studies in 2010, I really didn’t know what was next for me. Thanks to God, I got an opportunity to work as an Assistant Lecturer at Chuka University in Kenya. I had a great desire to pursue a PhD, but my biggest problem was that I did not have a research topic and didn’t know how to find one. The other problem was how I was going to finance my studies.

Zipporah3Then one day, Mr. Richard Ngumbu – Chief Technologist in the Physics Department at Egerton University, Kenya, sent me the call for applications for the Career Development Workshop at ICTP. I filled out the application without imagining that I would make it. But I got a surprise email with an invitation and details about my upcoming trip to Italy— that was a bright spot in my life! I couldn’t believe it! I was so excited and soon I arrived in Trieste. This turn of events was beyond my wildest dreams. Here I met many women, young and very educated, some who were my age and miles ahead, but most importantly, all in physics! I had never interacted with women in physics, even in my own country!

The next biggest event in my career came at that workshop, when I met Professor Arti Kashyap from the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, India. This was during the poster session. I didn’t even know that she was a professor in physics; I was admiring all these ladies’ posters when I commented to her that for me, the biggest problem was that I did not have a research problem. At that instant, she told me that if that was my biggest problem, then she would help me. I shared with her that I’d been avoiding seeking scholarships that would take me away from home for a long time, because my son was still in primary school. She answered with the advice that I could consider computational physics, and that she would even assist me by granting me access to her code remotely. There and then, she asked me to go and download Quantum ESPRESSO and do the Silicon problem, after which I should contact her. This was no mean feat for me then, but I went back home with great hope that at last, I could begin working towards my PhD. I went home with homework!

Tonya Blower’s presentation was another big event for me. Through it, I got to hear about OWSD for the first time. After her presentation, I asked a few more questions and felt that I would apply in the next call—I now had hope for financial support towards my studies! I left the workshop filled with hope, fully energized to go and begin working towards my PhD, my age notwithstanding.

When I went home, I completed my homework and contacted Prof. Arti. She then sent me a research paper and told me that from that I could get a problem. I read it thoroughly and then read it again, coming up with a proposal which I sent to her. She guided me and by April 2014, I had a PhD proposal in my hand. Around the same time, the call for OWSD PhD scholarships came out. Under the supervision and guidance from Prof. Julius Mwabora and Dr. Robinson Musembi of Physics Department at the University of Nairobi (UoN), I fine-tuned my proposal which led to my admission into UoN for my PhD studies. They also supported my application for the OWSD scholarship. After that, another miracle happened–I was awarded the scholarship and in 2016 and 2017, I went for my first and second visits to India, hosted by Prof. Arti at IIT, Mandi. It was a big dream come true! Here, I got way more than I thought possible: not only did I learn computational techniques, and dive into fully fledged research on Heusler alloys for spintronics applications, I had the most hospitable host one could ever wish for! Prof. Arti is a friend, sister, mother, and professor, all wrapped in one, who invited me to her home and on trips several times.

I have since managed to publish two papers and my thesis is in the final stages before examination. I also went back inspired to join the OWSD-Kenya chapter, and found that it did not exist. Together with likeminded ladies, we have kicked it off and plans to launch it are underway.

I thank God for allowing my destiny changers, the workshop organizers, to grant me the opportunity to attend the career development workshop for women in physics in 2013. Through the workshop I met more destiny changers: my supervisor, Prof. Arti, the program coordinator of OWSD, Tonya Blowers, and many inspiring women in physics. Have a wonderful workshop in 2017–may more careers and lives be touched in the upcoming conference!


Zipporah Wanjiku Muthui is currently completing her PhD at the University of Nairobi, and is an Assistant Lecturer for Chuka University, currently on study leave. She lives in Nairobi, Kenya.

A Conference in Ghana: Fufu and Cluster Algebras

by Tarig Abdelgadir

beachghanaI love going to conferences. There are the maths: sharing your peculiar interests with others is always fun. Then there is the warmth of the mathematics community. Add to that the experience of visiting a cool new country with your math-friends and you have a winner.

This conference was no exception. It was set in the beautiful West African country of Ghana, in Biriwa, with the official title of Homological Methods in Algebra and Geometry. The goal of the conference was to expose young African mathematicians to expertise in algebra and geometry, because these areas of research are slightly unrepresented in Africa. We hoped that the conference would help them enter one of these fields if they wished.

The idea for the conference came about when Ulrich Krähmer, a good friend of mine and mathematician at the University of Glasgow, visited Trieste. We got talking over pizza, at Peperino of course. He told me how he goes to Ghana to teach at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) every year. The students’ enthusiasm made a real mark on him; the three weeks he spends there are the most fun in his academic year. It was then natural to invite him to ICTP to speak to our head of math, Fernando Villegas, who suggested we apply for ICTP funding to organize a conference at AIMS-Ghana. The rest is history.

Dynamic Changes in Chinese Condensed Matter Physics: A Personal Journey

By Lu Yu

Reprinted with permission from the May 2016 issue of APS News, copyright American Physical Society

lu_1A half-century ago, modern condensed matter physics was almost nonexistent in China. During the past 30 years, especially since the beginning of the 21st century, the situation has changed dramatically. A number of outstanding young physicists from China with cutting-edge research achievements now have global recognition. How did this transition occur?

I was one of about 8000 Chinese scientists trained in the former Soviet Union for Diploma or Ph.D. degrees in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After returning to China, I was appointed a group leader at the Institute of Physics (IoP), the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), even though I did not have a Ph.D. The lack of experience and scientific exchange was partially made up by intensive self- and mutual education. A group of almost starving young people passionately studied and disputed the latest results in the literature (fortunately, scientific journals were available at IoP).

Unfortunately, that joyful time did not last long. In 1966 the Cultural Revolution broke out in China, and normal research and education activities were almost completely stopped. In 1969, I was sent to the countryside to do manual labor, to be “re-educated” by farmers. Research work was out of question under those conditions.

Nevertheless, something magical happened after I returned from the countryside in 1971 — “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” Here, the exchange of table tennis (ping-pong) players between the United States and People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the early 1970s marked a thaw in Sino-American relations that paved the way to a visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon. Following the ‘Ping-Pong’ Diplomacy, China slowly started to open up to the West. C.N. Yang, T.D. Lee, and other American scientists of Chinese descent visited mainland China and gave lectures. We intellectuals “smelled” renewed opportunity to do research work again. There was no direct scientific exchange between the U.S. and China, but China was able to send a small delegation to attend the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Physicists.