After earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar, Miriama Rajaoalisoa had initially intended to work in the field of nanotechnology. However, in 2015, a scientist’s talk on neutrinos caused her to rethink her position. The scientist’s description of the elusive, phantom-like particles captured Rajaoalisoa’s attention. I made the decision to pursue experimental particle physics at that point, she claims. It would be challenging. It would be challenging to communicate with experiments and physicists in other nations as there were no neutrino experiments in Madagascar. The Eastern African Submarine Cable System provided high-speed internet connectivity to Madagascar, but the only way that Malagasy students could connect to it was through obsolete computers in noisy internet cafés that experienced frequent power outages. Rajaoalisoa recognized the reality of her dream, nevertheless. That’s because a scientist who had already attained it visited her university. Laza Rakotondravohitra, one of five Malagasy students at the first-ever African School of Physics, paved the way to a doctoral degree in neutrino research.
At the University of Cincinnati, Rajaoalisoa is a PhD candidate and a participant in the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, while Rakotondravohitra, a medical physicist, continues to support Malagasy students in their pursuit of a physics education. The African School of Physics, a three-week course that instructs students in many facets of theoretical, experimental, and applied physics, served as the catalyst for everything. Rakotondravohitra attended the inaugural African School of Physics in South Africa in 2010 along with 59 other students. Rakotondravohitra found the program to be both a challenging and an eye-opening experience. He and the other Malagasy students spoke French and Malagasy at their universities, but the physics professors there instructed in English. Rakotondravohitra recollects spending a whole evening in the computer lab reviewing the lectures with one of his buddies to make sure they were understanding. But, he continues, “we caught on very rapidly. No matter the language, physics is the same. Rakotondravohitra was appointed an international fellow at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory by the US Department of Energy in 2012, following the completion of his master’s degree.
He gives credit for persuading him to apply to the African School to Christine Darve, Kétévi Assamangan, and their team, as well as Young-Kee Kim, the Fermilab deputy director at the time. According to Rakotondravohitra, “I will always be grateful for the leadership at the African School of Physics since they actually opened a lot of opportunities for me. He resided in a residence on the Fermilab campus while on his fellowship, where he worked with Fermilab scientist Jorge Morfn on the MINERvA neutrino experiment. At first, he adds, working at the lab was intimidating. But then he ran upon Colombian doctorate candidate David Martinez, who was also studying abroad. The two realized they had faced comparable difficulties. When we first arrived, Rakotondravohitra admits, “it was hard for us.” We weren’t even aware of our ignorance. They had studied theoretical physics, but unlike the majority of their American counterparts, they had never conducted experiments. They had to learn how to use a detector, run simulations, and interpret results. They succeeded, finishing their PhDs in 2015. Even traveling to Madagascar to witness Rakotondravohitra’s thesis defense was one of their MINERvA colleagues, Steven Dytman, who was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh at the time.
Martinez continued to take part in Fermilab investigations after that and moved to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago to work as a postdoctoral researcher. Rakotondravohitra attended Wayne State and Duke universities to complete a second degree with a focus in medical physics. The two stayed in touch and made the decision to collaborate to help other students. They initially assisted students from Colombia and Madagascar in locating and applying for scholarships so they may study physics in the US. Despite being intelligent, none of the pupils’ applications were being approved. Rakotondravohitra and Martinez swiftly saw that the crucial component was precisely the scientific experience they had acquired during their fellowships. They adopted a different strategy and attempted to train students. They were given tiny programming and physics projects by Martinez that they could do from a distance. Rakotondravohitra claims that the pupils “had demonstrated remarkable enthusiasm for the research.” “They consistently deliver their work on schedule.” The students were no longer turned away because of their increased experience. Four trainees from Colombia and six from Madagascar have so far enrolled in graduate programs in the United States, while additional students are studying physics at universities in Japan and India. According to Manoa Andriamirado, a Malagasy PhD student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, “there are many students in Madagascar and in other African nations who are really interested in a scientific career, but they don’t have the opportunity to pursue one.” “[Rakotondravohitra and Martinez’s] work is really significant. They reshaped my existence.
It has been tremendously satisfying to see students achieve, adds Martinez, who is currently an assistant professor in the physics department at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. “I believe there is a lot of potential from these locations, and the scientific world is beginning to recognize it.” Another manner that Rakotondravohitra and Martinez assisted Malagasy students in participating in neutrino research. Rakotondravohitra approached Roland Raboanary, a former lecturer at the University of Antananarivo, in 2015 to see if he would be interested in joining the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, which was then known as the Experiment at the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility. With Martinez’s help, Raboanary and Rakotondravohitra submitted an application, and that year Madagascar became the first country from Africa to be represented in DUNE. Rakotondravohitra states, “We are the only African nation at the moment, but we hope others will join.”
Rakotondravohitra, who is currently working as a medical physicist in Texas, is currently working on a brand-new major project: establishing a lab in Madagascar where students will have access to tools like top-notch computers and a steady internet connection to aid in their study. In 2019, Rakotondravohitra collaborated with MINERvA colleague Dytman to give the University of Antananarivo more than 40 used computers from the University of Pittsburgh. Dytman visited Rakotondravohitra’s alma mater during his thesis defense. In order to transfer more equipment from the US to Madagascar, Rakotondravohitra, Dytman, Martinez, and Fenompanirina Andrianala—a member of DUNE and associate professor at the University of Antananarivo—are currently working together. Within the following two years, the group wants to have a new lab operational. Rakotondravohitra expresses his hope that more students may successfully pursue particle physics in Madagascar. He says, “My main wish is that every student succeeds and goes on to help other students.” And every student is inspired to return to Madagascar in the future.