Special Fundamental Physics Prize Spurs CERN’s Virdee and Incandela to Fund Scholarships, Science Education Programs

Tejinder Singh Virdee and Joseph Incandela were raised in very different circumstances on separate continents, but they both understand the transformative effect that a science education can have on a young person.

Virdee and Incandela are among the seven CERN scientists who received the Special Fundamental Physics Prize (FPP) this year for their leadership roles in the decades-long endeavor that led to the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.

And since the award ceremony in March of 2013, they have been using some of their prize money to nurture budding minds and blossoming careers.

The CMS Fundamental Physics Scholarship

“My time as a CERN fellow transformed my life in almost all respects,” Incandela said. To give other young researchers the same opportunity, he has created the Fundamental Physics Scholarship.

The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at CERN probes some of the most exciting frontiers in science – including the search for dark matter and higher dimensions. For each of the next five years, Incandela’s program will select a researcher for the experiment and provide the financial support necessary for a year’s stay at CERN.

“Some countries have difficulty sending young people to work at CERN because of the cost of living in Geneva,” said Incandela, the current spokesperson for CMS, which has nationals from 42 countries among its staff of 4,300. “Often it would take just a bit more money – something like $1,000 to $1,500 per month – to make it possible for these scientists to come to CERN, where they will make contact with hundreds of experts from around the world.”

A group of 19 junior CMS scientists from varying international backgrounds have helped Incandela administer the program and will serve with him on the scholarship’s committee. In the first weeks after the scholarship was announced, the website was visited by thousands of people from more than 60 countries.

And Incandela hopes the scholarship will offer benefits beyond those it brings to its recipients. “Spending time at CERN is priceless for developing scientists. I think that if we can bring the best young people to CERN for a year, they will also have a big impact at home when they return.”

Virdee Takes Initiatives to Promote Science Education in Africa and Europe

Good teaching is close to Tejinder Singh Virdee’s heart. He was born in Kenya to Indian parents and raised until the age of 15 on the shores of Lake Victoria. He still has fond memories of the schooling he received at the Kisumu Boys High School.

“Inspirational teachers are a powerful force,” said Virdee, who is considered one of the two “founding fathers” of CMS.

In fact, when the elusive Higgs boson was discovered the first person he told outside of CMS was Howard Stockley, the physics teacher who inspired him at King’s Norton Boys’ School in Birmingham, England, where his parents had relocated.

“I had to tell him the great news in person,” Virdee said. “It was the first time we had seen each other in 40 years.” Much to Virdee’s surprise, Stockley had keenly followed his former student’s career and even heard Virdee mention him in a recent interview with the BBC for the series “The Life Scientific.”

“It was very emotional,” Virdee said. “Sadly Howard passed away only a few weeks after the official announcement.”

Earlier this year, the BBC World Service invited Virdee to participate in a program focusing on promoting science in Africa. At the conference in Kampala, Uganda, he got a first-hand glimpse of the enormous challenges young students are facing in Africa.

“A crucial recurring theme was the power of science to accelerate development,” Virdee said. “For that to happen these countries have to have a scientifically literate population.”

To that end, he has teamed up with the London-based Institute of Physics (IOP) to assist them in expanding some of their African programs, including to Kenya.

“One initiative that can yield significant returns on relatively small investments is training for high school physics teachers,” Virdee said. “When talented, motivated volunteers are brought in to help improve the physics education, they can have an impact well beyond their numbers. It is a winning combination.”

“I think it’s important to grab the attention of the young and introduce them to the fun in science,” Virdee added. “Fortunately it doesn't have to be expensive to bring many of the concepts of physics to life.”

As well as bringing international teachers to Africa, Virdee is bringing African teachers to the world.

This summer he worked with the IOP and the British Council to organize the participation of four high school science teachers - two Kenyan and two Ugandan - in CERN’s longstanding High School Teachers program in Geneva.

“It was the first time these teachers had ever been out of Africa,” Virdee said. “It was quite an extraordinary experience for them as well as their families back home!" For more information visit the BBC news story titled, "Prize-winning scientist brings African teachers to CERN."

Another initiative Virdee is working on, along with the other CMS recipients of the FPP, is setting up a series of prizes to recognize and assist young people within the CMS collaboration who have made significant contributions.