A journey of joy and uncertainty in physics

Science

This article is part of a series of essays written by Black physicists and co-published with Physics Today as part of #BlackInPhysics week 2022, an event dedicated to celebrating Black physicists and their contributions to the scientific community, and to revealing a more complete picture of what a physicist looks like. This year’s theme is “joy in the diverse Black community”.

Joy in adversity: Joyful Mdhluli took the tough step of changing her PhD mid-stream. (Courtesy: Joyful Mdhluli)

I like to believe that we embody the names we are given. And since my name is Joyful, I’ve always defaulted to this mental state even in periods of uncertainty. People have repeatedly commented that my name is very fitting, with one person even saying: “Wow, you’re literally joyful, just like your name.” And so happily, with something of a childish personality, is how I’ve always carried myself.

Born in Mpumalanga Province, which is known locally as “The place where the Sun rises”, I later moved to “Africa’s Eden” – Limpopo Province – at the age of 11. But when the end of high school loomed, fear was added to my joy as I now had to decide how to spend the rest of my life. I was fearful because I didn’t know what was out there, but I was joyful because I knew I would get to find out.

I wanted to go to university but as the first member of my family ever to do so, I realized I’d have to carry the burden and privilege of making my family and community proud. I also knew there was a lot I didn’t know. But while ruminating on uncertainty, I stumbled into a world – physics – that made not knowing okay. Because if you go into physics, it’s your job to find the answers.

I sensed that physics would give me the space to finally stretch myself beyond the limits of my environment

As someone with a frustratingly endless amount of curiosity, I sensed that physics would give me the space to finally stretch myself beyond the limits of my environment, my social circumstances and perceived possibilities. Although my mother is a school teacher, my father has been unemployed all my life, while only one of my three older siblings has a full-time job. Just going to university would be a huge achievement.

Seeing further

In 2011 I started a general BSc degree, majoring in physics, at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. I later did an honours degree, followed by a Master’s in nuclear solid-state physics, which I completed with distinction in 2017. I then began a PhD studying photocathode materials that could be used in photomultiplier tubes in particle detectors, characterizing them using neutron and gamma radiation, at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, and the cobalt-60 facility at CERN.

By going into physics, I was literally given the opportunity to see worlds beyond my own borders. That’s because during my Master’s degree, I boarded an aeroplane for the first time to perform experiments with our collaborators in Spain. We were trying to induce magnetism in diamond by irradiating our samples with protons from tandem accelerator before characterizing our samples with atomic-force and magnetic-force microscopy.

It was on that trip, in which I saw some amazing culture, architecture and scenery, that I also discovered my love for travelling. Since then, I have been to New Zealand, Russia, Portugal, Switzerland and France, in each case experiencing cultural and societal shocks that made me understand how far South Africa still must go to catch up with the rest of the world. I also realized on those trips that far too few Black, female eyes ever get to see what I was seeing.

In wanting my experience and privilege to be extended to more young Africans, I discovered my joy for teaching and mentorship. I started tutoring high-school physics and maths for a number of years and also began to take part in outreach programmes like the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists and the Nka’thuto Edu Propeller Expo as a judge. My involvement has let me interact with some of South Africa’s bright young minds and tell them more about the beautiful, limitless world of the sciences.

Later, I was asked to chronicle some of my experiences on the South African Young Academy of Sciences (SAYAS) blog, which led me in 2018–2019 to share the lessons I’d learnt and the feelings I’d felt as a Master’s and PhD student. I wrote about embracing our cultural diversities while appreciating commonalities, like scientific research, that bring us all together. I also lamented the misconceptions people often have about science and celebrated the journey of finding my fellow Black sisters in science.

I am now part of the strategic planning committee of Black Women in Science – a community of Black researchers that aims to promote the participation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. I am also secretary of the Women in Physics in South Africa committee, which encourages young women to go into physics. All these roles have added a sense of belonging and joy to my life.

Tackling difficulties

But all journeys and life decisions are coupled with as much strife as joy. In 2020, during the third year of my PhD, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In addition to grappling with transformations to society it had wrought, I found myself battling with my own sense of internal purpose. It was during these moments of extended deep reflection that I realized I had lost some of my joy. I simply felt I had nothing to show for my work in physics.

To make matters worse, our collaborators from Dubna could not send us relevant samples because of pandemic-related logistical issues. My experiment was failing and I was failing too. Worst of all, I felt curiously detached from my PhD. I realized I did not want to continue and there didn’t seem to be enough drive and motivation in the world to keep me going. And because I don’t believe in continuing with something just for the sake of it, I ground to a halt.

For three months at the start of the pandemic, I was unable to step foot in my lab. Even when I got back in, my experiment did not work. And with limits on the number of people who were allowed to work, it was hard to get my set-up functioning again. Attempts to access labs from other universities failed, leaving me so stressed that I ended up having panic attacks every other day. My career in physics had hit rock bottom.

It was around this time that a physicist, who was not my PhD supervisor, asked me about my academic progress. I’d originally met her while attending a seminar at Witwatersrand in 2018, where she’d talked about her research in high-energy physics. After chatting with her about my situation, she offered a solution, which was to change the direction of my PhD. As a result, I’m now analysing data taken by the ALICE detector of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

I’ve always appreciated the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – in fact, it’s tattooed on my inner wrist

My conversation felt almost as if the universe was trying to tell me that my journey in physics was not over yet. I realized I didn’t have to keep doing the same thing and that it’s okay if everything’s not quite nailed down in life. That’s why I’ve always appreciated the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – in fact, it’s tattooed on my inner wrist. It reassures me that while there may always be uncertainty, it doesn’t have to stop me from continuing with my life or making decisions.

I’ll choose certain paths, some of which will bring me joy and others won’t. If I happen to go down the latter, I’ve now realized it’s okay to turn around and start finding my joy in physics again. That’s how I ended up switching PhD projects in late 2020, joining the SA-ALICE group at iThemba LABS in Cape Town. It analyses the production of electroweak bosons and heavy quarks, while also helping to upgrade the ALICE experiment at CERN.

Switching my PhD was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, completely abandoning a project I’d been working on for three years to follow something completely different instead. The change was tough, involving me having to learn lots of new concepts and skills at top speed. Fortunately, I’m now in the last stretch of my PhD – in fact, I’ve written so many supposedly “final” versions of my thesis that I wish a word more absolute than “final” existed.

However, it’s been a joy to explore the endless possibilities that physics brings, all while learning, mentoring and being mentored myself. And when I finally complete my PhD, I look forward to the beautifully uncertain future that my career in physics will bring.

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