This year's Edward A. Bouchet Prize was awarded to Cameroonian-born physicist Alvine Kamaha, Assistant Professor at the University of California (UCLA) in Los Angeles, USA. The winner announced this on her X (ex-Twitter) account.
According to the American Physical Association (APS), “this award promotes the participation of underrepresented minorities in physics by identifying and recognizing a distinguished minority physicist who has made significant contributions to physics research and the advancement of underrepresented minority scientists.”
Alvine Kamaha earned the award for “leadership and key accomplishments in the experimental search for dark matter in the Universe, including advances in radioactive purity, as well as contributions to outreach, diversity, and inclusion through service and mentoring of students,” the APS indicates.
Alvine Kamaha probes the galaxy to unravel the mysteries of our universe. "What I study — sort of — is the darkness between the stars. These stars are within galaxies that are surrounded by a halo of non-luminous matter (also called dark matter), that keeps them gravitationally bound,” Kamaha says. “This fascinating dark matter has been there from the very beginning of the universe, acting almost as a ‘glue’ that facilitated the formation of large-scale structures — galaxies — and it also has an impact on the way our universe evolves," she recounts on the UCLA website.
She heads a research group called ExCaliBUR (Experimental Detector Calibrations & Background Controls for Underground Particle Physics Research), which aims to contribute to ongoing global efforts to discover and directly probe the nature of dark matter, a hypothetical particle theorized to account for around 85% of the mass of the universe. In particular, she is working on several projects aimed at optimizing existing dark matter detection technologies and developing new ones. After obtaining her bachelor's and master's degrees in physics at the University of Douala, Alvine Kamaha flew abroad to pursue her studies.
At the time, "there was no experimental particle physics in Cameroon. It was also difficult to major in physics in general due to gender bias in the educational system," she says. It was in Italy, while pursuing her second master's degree in high-energy physics, that she fell "in love" with neutrino physics and dark matter. With her degree in hand, she decided to switch from theoretical to experimental physics and moved to Canada, where she obtained her PhD in astroparticle physics in 2015.
After completing her Ph.D. work on using bubble chamber detection technology to search for dark matter, Kamaha then joined several experiments to gain further expertise in several particle detection technologies. She is currently a member of the Lux-Zeplin experiment, an international project for the direct detection of dark matter based at an underground facility in South Dakota, which brings together nearly 250 scientists from 35 institutes in the USA, UK, Portugal, and Korea.
Although dark matter has not yet been directly observed, Kamaha is convinced of its existence. "We’ve been searching for dark matter for more than 80 years. Although we haven’t found it yet, we have learned so much. Sometimes finding nothing isn’t bad, it’s just part of the scientific process. I want my students to live by this lesson, that no matter what they do — whether they become a scientist or choose a different path — remaining open-minded, curious, and resourceful are invaluable skills to possess," says the physicist.
Patricia Ngo Ngouem