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A journey of joy and uncertainty in physics

26 October 2022

Joyful Mdhluli describes the joy that a career in physics brings, even after hitting rock bottom during her PhD.

This article is the third in a series of essays written by Black physicists and co-published with Physics World 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.”

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

Joyful Mdhluli.
Photo courtesy of Joyful Mdhluli

Born in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province, which is known locally as “the place where the sun rises,” I 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 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. 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 look for the answers.

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 schoolteacher, my father has been unemployed all my life, and 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 work on a general BSc degree, majoring in physics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. I later did an honors degree, followed by a master’s in nuclear solid-state physics, which I completed with distinction in 2017. I then began a PhD program, 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 studies, I boarded an airplane for the first time, to perform experiments with collaborators in Spain. We were trying to induce magnetism in diamond by irradiating our samples with protons from a tandem accelerator before characterizing our samples with atomic-force and magnetic-force microscopy.

It was on that trip, during which I saw some amazing culture, architecture, and scenery, that I also discovered my love for traveling. 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 math and began to take part as a judge in outreach programs such as the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists and the Nka’thuto Edu Propeller Expo. 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 Science blog, which led me in 2018–19 to share the lessons I’d learned and the feelings I’d felt as a master’s and PhD student. I wrote about embracing our cultural diversity 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 math careers. I am also secretary of the Women in Physics in South Africa committee, which encourages young women to go into physics. All those 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 studies, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In addition to grappling with the transformations to society it wrought, I found myself battling my own sense of purpose. During those moments of extended deep reflection, 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 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 set 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 in person, it was hard to get my setup functioning again. Attempts to access labs at 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 talking with her about my situation, she offered a solution, which was to change the direction of my PhD. As a result, I’m now analyzing data taken by the ALICE detector of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

My conversation with that physicist felt almost as if the universe were trying to tell me that my journey in physics was not over. I realized I didn’t have to keep doing the same thing and that it’s okay if not everything in life is completely nailed down. That’s why I’ve always appreciated the Heisenberg uncertainty principle—in fact, it’s tattooed on my inner wrist. It reassures me that although 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 will bring me joy and others won’t. I’ve now realized that if I happen to go down the latter path, 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 analyzes the production of electroweak bosons and heavy quarks while also helping to upgrade the ALICE experiment at CERN.

Switching my PhD focus—completely abandoning a project I’d been working on for three years to follow something completely different—was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. The change was tough, involving my having to learn lots of new concepts and skills at top speed. Fortunately, I’m now in the last stretch of my PhD work—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.

Joyful Mdhluli is an experimental high-energy physicist working toward a PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

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