Focus on: Andry Rakotozafindrabe

Iva Raynova

Andry was born and raised in Madagascar. She decided she wanted to be a physicist even before she had started high school. “Children are inclined to love science. To be curious. They ask simple questions, like why is the sky blue, which are actually quite interesting from the physics point of view. It really matters whom they meet on their way because they need to be encouraged to keep asking and to discover new things. For me those encouraging people were my parents, then I continued learning by reading books.” With the thought that physics is the most comprehensive science, which helps us understand nature, she moved to France to do her university studies. “During my courses I met a few professors who were involved in high-energy physics projects. They were really pushing us and they motivated me to start working in the field.”

In 2007 she defended her PhD thesis on the PHENIX experiment in Brookhaven. At the end of the same year she joined ALICE with her first postdoc in the CEA/IRFU, Centre d'etude de Saclay, France. The LHC hadn't started its operation yet at the time and the detectors were still in their commissioning phase. Her institute was involved with the building of the muon arm, detecting the two muons into which the J/ψ particle decays. “We wanted to find what polluted the electronic channels of our detectors, so this work took a long time.”

Today Andry is involved with the future upgrade of ALICE. “We want to install a new detector between the muon arm and the interaction point. It is called Muon Forward Tracker (MFT) and will be based on silicon technology. The idea is to be able to extrapolate the tracks very close to the interaction point and with very high precision.” She was also run manager for the first time in June. “You have to ensure very good efficiency of the data taking, so it was tough in the beginning. You have to get the most out of the beam. If you have troubles, you need to be very quick and reactive.”

Andry often finds herself in a situation where she has to explain what she does and why she does it. “In Madagascar most people don't see the need of trying to answer questions like what the building blocks of nature are. They are interested in how to increase the production in agriculture for example. They don't see why people should spend money on fundamental research. So I try to explain that the new discoveries could be used in the future for the benefit of society. I also explain how the detector development is actually pushing forward industry and technology progress. I use a comparison between art and science. In art, every period is initiated by a visionary with innovative methods. An artist who opens a new window and allows us to see the world from a new and different perspective. This new world promises a lot of thrill and wonders and later many more artists contribute to its development. It is the same in science. Each new discovery is a window to nature and scientists join forces to understand what they can see through it. While artists have galleries to present their work, scientists use the methods of science communication and popularisation to reach the society.”

Currently she is learning how to play the ukulele – a small guitar-resembling instrument with four strings. “I chose it because it is small and I can carry it everywhere. It helps me release the stress.” She also enjoys reading science fiction books. “My favourite one is “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury and I try to read it regularly. It emphasises the fact that from a society in which people enjoy human interaction, reading and gaining knowledge, we are shifting towards a society where everything is fast, people are not listening to each other and where thinking is seen as a disadvantage.”

Alice Matters