by Polly Bennett. Published: 25 November 2011

Cuba. Most people’s minds will jump to the 1959 revolution, Guantanamo Bay or the US embargo. In antithesis, other peoples’ minds jump to cigars, rum, and the delicious Caribbean Sea lapping on the shores of perfectly white sandy beaches. Against such polar stereotypes of the largest island in the Caribbean Cesar Ceballos Sanchez, the latest ALICE web master, paints a locals picture of this country and how it shaped him and his journey to CERN.


There is a crocodile mauling a harmless rodent-like jutia on the screen in front of me, but earlier today Cesar was adamant that Cuba was a safe place to be. The documentary commentary continues, “the Cuban crocodile has the reputation as the most aggressive crocodile in the world.” His dismissal of these crocodile infested swamps is just one piece of evidence that Cesar is tremendously proud of his home country.

He beams. “Cuba is not so small. It just looks tiny because it’s so close to the US. I remember joking with my friends in Italy because Cuba is almost as long. Italy is about 1200 km and Cuba is 1800 km. But of course Cuba is a lot thinner! I’ve lived there my whole life, apart from some time in Italy and Belgium. I had to go to somewhere like Italy for my PhD because there are so many more resources.”

But Cesar is currently here at CERN for 4 months as the ALICE web master. “I’m in charge of the ALICE collaboration web pages.” Now into his 3rd month Cesar ended up at CERN via a less traditional route than many others. “Well, I’m not actually informatics, I’m nuclear physics. I just finished my PhD in medical physics working on neutron therapy for cancer. It was very nice actually.” Neutron therapy is a type of radiation therapy that can treat tumours that are seemingly inoperable, or resistant, to classic radiation therapy. For his thesis Cesar designed a therapeutical accelerator-based beam to be used in the Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT) for shallow skin melanoma. (The work was done with the Laboratori Nazionali di Legraro (LNL) of the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) of Italy). BNCT is a binary therapy where first the patient is injected with a boron-carrier compound that accumulates preferentially in tumour cells, after which the patient is irradiated with a suitable neutron beam. Low energy neutrons interact with Boron-10 atoms (previously accumulated in the tumour cells) releasing around 2 MeV of energy in a linear size of around 10 µm, provoking so much damage on the tumour cells that apoptosis (cell death) is induced in them. “So far,” Cesar says, “ only nuclear reactors are used to produce the therapy beam, and patients are sent from hospitals to these reactors for the irradiation process. My PhD task was to produce, through computer simulations, a design of a beam that is not based in a nuclear reactor but in a particle accelerator, which has a lot of advantages in terms of safety, cost and the possibility of being installed inside hospitals.”

Cesar Ceballos Sanchez

Cesar Ceballos Sanchez

At first Cesar did not work on therapy but in detecting breast cancer. “I worked on a preliminary study to replace the mammography diagnostic tests with a silicon strip detector that would produce a digital image directly. I was in charge of the computer simulations of the experimental setups. It was after this I moved to neutron therapy.” As for how he jumped to CERN, “I came back to Cuba from Italy and this project at ALICE was proposed to me.” Cesar raises his hands to the heavens and laughs, “ahhh, CERN! Yes, yes, I come to CERN. I was very happy.” The members of Cesar’s group in Cuba will do 4 month rotations as the ALICE web master, as well as beginning work on event reconstruction.

“So right now I just finished the new sub-site for ALICE publications. There’s now a much more automatic system for submitting proposed publications. We’re just starting to test it now.”

I go back to asking about Cuba. Do you smoke cigars? (It’s horribly cliché but I had to ask). “No, no.” He sighs, “it’s interesting because people always ask that. And they get disappointed when I say no. But I do drink rum.” He asks me “do you drink tea? Always at 3pm?” We compare stereotypes for a while and this leads me to ask whether Cuba is as tense or dodgy as it is often portrayed to the rest of the world. “It’s probably a lack of information or something that makes people think it will be tense. People tend to fear what they don’t know. It’s in our DNA. I think if a tourist wants to go to Latin America then Cuba is a very nice place. It’s safe and you can easily walk around as a tourist.” It’s now that Cesar’s national pride ramps up a notch. “Actually, the country that sends more tourists in a year to Cuba is Canada. It’s near and in the winter Cuba is 26oC. While in Canada you probably have -26oC.” He starts to advertise Latin America, but promotes a serious message. “If you or anyone wants to go to Cuba you should go with an open mind. No pre-built concept. Just go there and see. If you go thinking you’ll find Hell you’ll be disappointed. If you go thinking you’ll find paradise, you’ll be disappointed.”

I ask what Cesar does in his spare time; if he makes use of the beautiful surroundings he lives in. “I have a 10 year old son.” He shows me a photograph of him dressed in roller skates and protective gear. “He takes up a lot of time. But one thing I like a lot is the beach. I live about 1km from the eastern beaches of Havana.” These beaches are nicer than those to the west of Havana because they are sandy rather than rocky. We talk in detail about beach preferences (sandy vs rocky, white vs black sand) and look for photos on Google Earth. “I go cycling with my son and girlfriend.” He shows me their route along the roads. “We arrive here.” He circles his mouse over a stretch of idyllic sand and palm trees. “If we feel sporty that day we arrive here.” This time he traces a very long beach. “I also go snorkelling but you have to go out quite far to get past the sand.”

“There are also some really, really nice beaches along the Varadero spit that sticks far out into the Caribbean Sea. The water is shallow a long way out so you can walk out with the water only up to your knees. I was at this beach in the summer and early in the morning, about 8 am, you can see dolphins. You can get sharks if you go far out to sea, but if there’s a shark here on the beach it just came here to die. In Cuba nothing else could really kill you apart from sharks, and also crocodiles. The animals here drink rum and smoke cigars.” Cesar jokes. “You would have to go to the crocodiles and say ‘eat me’. They will not come to you.” He then recommends the documentary.

Cesar’s passion and loyalty to his country have become more apparent as we talked and I ask him why he is so proud of Cuba. “I was born there and that marks you. From a professional point of view my whole preparation and education, from pre-school to Masters, was in Cuba. When I first went to Italy I was a little afraid. I was only 23 and I had done everything before in Cuba. In Italy I met people from Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, etc. But actually I found that my Cuban education was not that bad. Education is free in Cuba, including university. It is a developing country, but from a human resources point of view there’s a lot of state investment. Good doctors, good sports people, and so on.”

“The thing I like most about Cuba now is that raising a child there is safe. They are free. Here in Europe, it’s a little bit sad seeing these small boys who are always at home in their garden with its fence, or on the street with their parents, or with their parents taking them to the park and then always watching what they are doing. One of the most beautiful images I have of my son is in my house. He says ‘I’m going out to play around’ and he goes out. 2 hours later he returns and is covered in mud. I say ‘are you tired’ and he says ‘no, water!’ He drinks water and then ‘bye!’ he goes out again. This is what you’ll see in Cuba, a lot of children playing in the street and it is very nice for me having this sense of safety and freedom for my son. We don’t have problems to pay for his school because it is free. I’m telling you the nice parts of Cuba of course. It’s a poor country so there are a lot of sharp edges, and I cannot compare Cuba with Switzerland. But compared to Honduras, Nicaragua and other Latin American countries it’s very secure.”