Feature Story | 1-Jul-2024

Three Argonne postdocs invited to prestigious meeting of Nobel laureates

The Nobel Laureate Meetings in Lindau, Germany, connect early-career scientists with dozens of Nobel Prize winners in their fields

DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

For many early-career physicists, the opportunity to discuss their work with past Nobel Prize winners in the field represents the dream of a lifetime. This summer, that dream will come true for three postdoctoral researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

That is because the talented trio — Soham Saha, Khushi Bhatt and Nirupama Sensharma — have earned invitations to the highly prestigious Nobel Laureate Meetings in Lindau, Germany, June 30–July 5. Now in its 73rd year, the event brings together dozens of former Nobel Prize winners with hundreds of young researchers from a common field of science. The goal is to “inspire scientific generations and build sustainable networks of young scientists around the world.” This year’s meeting will focus on physics.

Saha, Bhatt and Sensharma earned their invitations to Lindau through a rigorous selection process in which they had to describe the nature of their work and what they hoped to contribute to the meeting. In the end, they edged out thousands of other applicants from around the globe to network with the brightest and most accomplished physicists in the world.

“I want to meet the Nobel laureates and get their insights on my work. But I also want to learn how they overcame adversity in their own lives to get there.” — Khushi Bhatt, Argonne postdoctoral appointee

However, none of them would have earned their invites to Lindau without drawing on significant reserves of patience, perseverance… and encouragement from family, Argonne colleagues and each other.

A dream deferred

For Soham Saha, an Argonne scholar and Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellow in Argonne’s Nanoscience and Technology division, the journey to Lindau is now nearly five years in the making. In 2019, he was a graduate student at Purdue University, working on a project to develop computer transistors made entirely of light. This work earned him an invitation to the meeting in 2020. However, the growing COVID pandemic forced Lindau’s organizers to cancel the in-person programming that year and hold the event virtually.

“I was very disappointed, because it was really the opportunity of a lifetime to be in the presence of so many Nobel laureates,” he recalled.

Fortunately, Lindau’s organizers gave him an open invitation to attend one future meeting in person. He chose to bide his time at first and wait for a program with an interdisciplinary focus. In the meantime, he shifted his own focus from optical computing (as described above) to a technique called high harmonic generation. This technique could one day enable researchers to develop accelerators as powerful as the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System (ATLAS), a DOE Office of Science user facility, but small enough to fit on a tabletop. ATLAS is able to probe nuclear reactions and structures of atomic nuclei.

Saha’s patience paid off when Lindau’s organizers announced that the 2024 meeting will focus on physics, and include Anne L’Huillier, who earned the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2023 for her pioneering work in high harmonic generation.

“Of course, I hope to have the opportunity to ask Anne L’Huillier and the others whether the questions I’m pursuing in my research are on the right track, or whether I should be looking in some different directions,” he said. “I really hope to come away with some inspiring ideas.”

In addition to attending the Lindau Meeting, Saha will also present his work at the Baden Württemberg Post Conference Programme. It is a highly coveted opportunity among researchers, which is earned through a competitive submission process.

A study in perseverance

Khushi Bhatt says she is most looking forward to interacting with the laureates and learning “what makes them tick.” Exploring the origins and intricate inner workings of things is kind of her thing.

As a postdoctoral appointee in the Argonne Physics division, she studies nuclear astrophysics. This field aims to explore the origins of chemical elements in the universe and their formation in stars. In her work, Bhatt replicates some of the same stellar nuclear reactions using ATLAS. These experiments mimic processes that likely occurred in the formation of stars and contributed to the creation of the elements we observe today.

Lindau is a long way from Surendranagar, the small town in Gujarat, India, where she grew up. There, women rarely study beyond high school or bachelor’s degree levels — let alone pursue careers in physics. But through her academic performance and personal perseverance (and the support of her family), she has earned her way to a Ph.D. in Physics, a postdoctoral appointment at Argonne, and now an invitation to one of the most prestigious gatherings in her field. The significance of the entire journey is not lost on her.

“Yes, I want to meet the laureates, get their insights on my work, and solicit their ideas on how to advance it,” she explained. “But I also want to learn how they overcame adversity in their own lives and backgrounds to get here. Because I want to lead by example and inspire other small-town girls like me who dream big and want to understand the origins of our universe.”

Bhatt has also earned the opportunity to present her work at the Baden Württemberg Post Conference Programme. She will be one of only 18 presenters selected.

Opportunity powered by family

Like her colleague Khushi, Nirupama Sensharma hails from a small town in India where most locals viewed science as a man’s pursuit. But not her family.

“When I was a little kid, I’d say, ‘I want to be a doctor… or an engineer… or a pilot,’” she recalled. “It changed every day. But whatever it was, my parents always said, ‘You can be whatever you want.’”

When she finally landed on “physicist,” her parents encouraged her to get her bachelor's degree in faraway Delhi and then her Ph.D. in the United States. She accomplished the latter at the University of Notre Dame. There, she began making the connections with Argonne researchers that brought her to the laboratory as a postdoctoral appointee in the Argonne Physics division.

Today, she uses her expertise in gamma-ray spectroscopy and Argonne’s state-of-the-art facilities to study the properties and behavior of atomic nuclei that have exotic shapes (as compared with the more typical nuclei, which have simpler shapes such as spherical.) Her goal is to expand our understanding of the structure of the atomic nucleus at a fundamental level.

As a Lindau invitee, she is eager to get insights about her work from the laureates and join the community of collaboration that has developed over the years between the event’s alumni. She also wants to connect with other women at the event to generate ideas for encouraging more young women to join their ranks.

A culture of encouragement

Saha, Bhatt and Sensharma have taken different paths to Lindau — both personally and in terms of their research. And their invitation to Lindau speaks to the excellence that each has achieved individually in their young careers. But all three also credit the support they draw from Argonne’s robust postdoctoral society for part of their success.

“At Argonne, you see a lot of very highly educated, like-minded people who really love their work and really love their science,” Saha explains. “This makes it easier to form a ‘little family’ of really close friends, where we’re helping each other out with our research and our personal lives.”

That support system extends beyond peers to include mentorship and programming, according to Bhatt.

“The encouragement I’ve received from my staff mentors here at Argonne has been amazing,” she said. “They’ve urged me to submit proposals, and they’ve ensured that I get time on Argonne facilities for my experiments. Argonne has just been a wonderful platform for me to grow as a researcher and as a human.”

Now, that growth is poised to continue for all three researchers as they head to Lindau together this summer.

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