by Virginia Greco. Published: 11 June 2018

Edith Zinhle Buthelezi, who is a senior scientist at iThemba LABS, Somerset West, South Africa, has been the ALICE Run Manager for some of the latest weeks and has also participated on behalf of the Collaboration in a Facebook live event organized by CERN and held on May 30th. We spoke to her to know more about her career path and scientific interests.

Edith is a member of the ALICE Collaboration since 2007 and is involved in the muon spectrometer activities and its upgrade. A nice and cheerful person, she is very enthusiastic about her job and her involvement in ALICE. The path that led her into high-energy nuclear physics and CERN, though, was not straightforward but presented some twists and turns.

When she was a youngster, Edith was convinced that she wanted to be a medical doctor. So, when the time came, she enrolled for a medical degree in Cape Town. But, after some time, she realized that she was rather interested in natural sciences, so she dropped medicine in favour of Physics.

When she was still in the middle of her undergraduate studies, she was introduced to the institution that would later become her “home”, i.e. iThemba LABS. ‘It was in the early 90’s.’ Edith recalls.‘I went to iThemba LABS, which at the time was called the National Accelerator Centre (NAC), as a summer vacation student. This is where I got exposed to nuclear physics and got fascinated and hence my interest in nuclear physics began.’

As a result, after concluding her undergraduate studies, she continued with a Master and then a Ph.D. in this field. Since her post-graduate studies, she has been working at iThemba LABS, where she is now a senior scientist. ‘I have been a permanent staff member at iThemba LABS for 18 years,’ Edith comments with a big smile. 

She worked for a few years in low energy nuclear physics, concentrating in particular on applications, e.g. radioisotope production, and, at the same time, following her research interest in nuclear reaction mechanisms, utilizing particle beams provided by the cyclotron at her laboratory. She also learned about simulations with Fluka when she was working with a group at the University of Milan and INFN in Italy, where she spent some time.

A change of path presented itself again in 2006 when the directorate at iThemba LABS changed. This made it possible for her and two other colleagues to “explore” ALICE and ultimately decide to officially join later on. Edith had already become interested in CERN and the ALICE experiment a few years before, in 2001, when the “XIV ICFA School on Instrumentation in Elementary Particle Physics” was hosted in South Africa. ‘iThemba LABS actually provided the venue of this event,’ clarifies Edith.’ Paolo Giubellino from the ALICE Collaboration, as well as representatives and lectures from other CERN/LHC experiments, were present. They were extremely interested in and in favour of getting more scientists from South Africa. The University of Cape Town joined the ALICE collaboration soon after, while iThemba LABS could not at the time, due to management reasons,’ explains Edith.

‘The new director, though’ she continues,‘who came from the University of Cape Town, was very much interested since he was already a member of the ALICE Collaboration. Thus, my two colleagues and I started discussing the possibility to join ALICE and, in 2007, we came to CERN for a visit. Thanks to the support of our institute, the National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology, the Memorandum of Understanding already signed by the University of Cape Town was extended to officially include iThemba LABS in the ALICE Collaboration.’

Since the University of Cape Town was already part of the Muon Spectrometer, it was natural to get involved in the activities of this group.‘When we arrived, it was commissioning time for the experiment, so there were no data to analyze,’ Edith explains;‘as such we utilised the time to learn about and to get acquainted with the detector by getting involved in the commissioning activities of the muon spectrometer, as well as of the (di)muon part of the high-level trigger software – which meant testing the tool by performing Monte Carlo simulations to study the W-boson production via the single muon decay channel. Since then we have been participating in the maintenance and operations of the muon spectrometer and its upgrade. Recently, we started working on projects related to the upgrade of the experiment, i.e. the new readout of the muon identifier and on the low voltage power supply system for the muon chambers.’

Edith in 2008 [Credits: Claire Lee]


Since the LHC started running, Edith is also contributing to the data analysis, supervising the work of a few Master and Ph.D. students, who are working on heavy flavor and W-boson production using the single muon decay channel.

‘For us, it is very important to transfer to our students the knowledge and skills that we have developed. We are constantly learning new things and acquiring skills through our involvement in ALICE and/or CERN,’ comments Edith.‘For me personally, it would be satisfying and rewarding to see someone that I have trained prosper and make a mark for themselves in this research field. We have had a few students completing their Master and Ph.D. degrees and then leaving research for jobs in the industry or the financial sector. It is a marvelous thing, but also a loss at the same time. I say this because I would really like to see at least one person chose research or academia. That would be gratifying, indeed.’

Edith’s interest in the training of new generations of scientists is not only oriented to students in South Africa, but to all African youngsters who might be interested in a Physics career. ‘We would like to use our institute and expertise as a gateway for other African countries which might not have nuclear and particle physics in their academic programmes,’ Edith comments. In fact, South African institutes, including iThemba LABS, are already attracting a few students from other African countries, in particular, those geographically close. In addition, the African School of Fundamental Physics, hosted every second year in a different African country, has done a lot in this regard and so has the South African Institute of Physics.  

Edith has spent the last few weeks at CERN to cover her quota of shifts in the ALICE Run Control Centre and to follow the progress of the upgrade activities.‘Each time I come to CERN, I try to stay for at least one month or more,’ she comments; ‘I concentrate on many activities and appointments during a given period to make the best of it.’

She often works long hours and then, to relax and “recalibrate”, she takes long walks or jogs; she also likes to read books. ‘But not so much lately’, she laughs. Music is another big passion of hers: both to listen and… to sing.‘I have a trained voice, not many people know this. I have studied singing since I can remember and for many years, but then physics took over and now I sing only for leisure - for myself.’


Edith working in the experimental cavern of ALICE.