10 Years of Supporting the Advancement of Physicists Worldwide

The Simons Associate Program has enabled dozens of up-and-coming physicists from developing countries to expand their research networks and scope.

A aerial view of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics campus in Trieste, Italy. ICTP

Among the rolling hills of Italy’s northeast coast, overlooking the blue waters of the North Adriatic, there is a haven where physicists from around the world gather. Some call it a paradise, others say it’s like a dream.

This place, the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, or ICTP, is an international research institute where physicists — who have backgrounds in theoretical physics ranging from high-energy astrophysics to medical physics — enjoy the freedom to focus on their studies and collaborate with other brilliant minds from around the globe.

Since 2013, a program at ICTP run with backing from the Simons Foundation has supported dozens of mid-career physicists from countries with under-supported science programs. Over the years, the program has given a diverse cohort of 71 researchers from 20 countries the opportunity to focus on their research and engage with a wider community than they could from their home countries. This month, the Simons Foundation is marking the program’s tenth anniversary.

“The mission of the Simons Foundation is to support the math and basic science. Through collaborating with ICTP on this program, we’ve been able to extend our impact to under-served researchers around the world,” says Greg Gabadadze, senior vice president for physics at the Simons Foundation. “We are proud to have supported so many top-tier researchers.”

The ICTP, which is located just outside the Italian city of Trieste, is named after its founder, Abdus Salam, who shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for physics for his work developing a theory describing the connection between electromagnetism and the weak force — two of the four fundamental forces along with gravity and the strong force. He is also remembered for his advocacy for science in developing nations, including in his home country of Pakistan. Today, the ICTP follows in its founder’s footsteps of improving research opportunities and support for scientists in developing countries.

That work is carried out through several ICTP programs including the Simons Associate Program, a part of the ICTP Associates Program, which is one of its oldest and most successful programs with more than 3000 associates since 1964. The Simons Associate Program selects accomplished physicists and mathematicians from developing nations who are committed to outreach in their home countries. Over a six-year fellowship, they are provided financial support so they can focus on their research and are invited to study at ICTP for one to two months at a time.

“While in this program, the researchers are able to form new networks, collaborations and friendships,” says Francesca Prelazzi, from the Associates Office at ICTP. “While they are at the ICTP, they are also free from their regular work and administrative duties and have access to our facilities such as an extensive library and high-performance computing center.”

The program also encourages the scientists to bring their master’s students, doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows to the ICTP. In many ways, the program serves as both a bridge to narrow the distance between physics communities around the world and a common ground for them to collaborate.

“The ICTP is an invaluable meeting place for researchers from the developing world,” says Luis Eduardo Francisco Foa Torres, current ICTP Simons Associate, and condensed matter physicist at the Universidad de Chile, in Santiago. “It’s a place where we can gain enlightening and inspiring insights into the experiences of other colleagues who have faced similar challenges.”

Foa Torres first encountered the ICTP as a postdoctoral fellow in 2004. In the years since, he’s returned at various times in his career, including in 2018 as a recipient of that year’s ICTP Prize; and in 2020 he became a Simons Associate. Foa Torres specializes in dealing with materials governed by quantum mechanics. During his time as a Simons Associate, he’s focused on studying the fundamental properties of quantum materials that undergo physical changes when a laser is shined on them.

“The ICTP is an invaluable meeting place for researchers from the developing world.… It’s a place where we can gain enlightening and inspiring insights into the experiences of other colleagues who have faced similar challenges”

Luis Eduardo Francisco Foa Torres

“Whenever I come to ICTP, I have this freedom to think about what’s next,” Foa Torres says. “It helps me reset my research and start new projects with fresh ideas and perspectives, which I think is critical to keeping my career going and staying productive scientifically.”

As Foa Torres can attest, being a physicist in a developing country comes with unique challenges. Often these physicists don’t have a large group of peers in their home countries and their institutions sometimes lack certain resources and opportunities. Obtaining funding for travel to meet with collaborators can be hard, and obtaining visas can be even harder.

“It’s typically very difficult for Iranian scientists to obtain visas and travel in Europe,” says Yasaman Farzan, an ICTP Simons Associate and department head at the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences’ School of Physics in Tehran, Iran. “Without the financial and visa support from the program, we wouldn’t be able to make these trips and meet with collaborators.”

During her time as an ICTP Simons Associate, Farzan has collaborated with Nicolás Bernal, another ICTP Associate, and ICTP emeritus professor Alexei Smirnov on research of extreme cosmic events called gamma ray bursts. These incredibly luminous flashes, created during the death of a large star, sometimes produce more energy than scientists thought was theoretically possible. While at the ICTP in 2023, Farzan and her collaborators worked on a project proposing a new solution to how these bursts can create so much energy by modeling the most energetic such event ever observed. Their new theory proposes high energy neutrinos — fundamental, nearly massless particles — created in the burst collide with other lower-energy neutrinos in space, causing them to emit the incredibly high-energy light seen from the events.

“This project has really been a product of the associate program,” Farzan says. “I don’t think the collaboration would have been possible without it.”

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Farzan has also used her time in the program to travel around Europe, meeting with collaborators and being immersed in the scientific cultures of other countries. With travel restrictions, the scientific communities in Iran are often isolated. Through her travels, Farzan has experienced the changing culture of scientific communities elsewhere, which includes the growing presence of women in science as well as the increased family support. Those experiences have given Farzan new ideas on how to make her home Iranian scientific community more supportive and welcoming.

“After seeing how parents are supported in some Northern European countries, I decided to start a day care at our institution so that our scientists could have a place for their children to be taken care of while they are working,” Farzan says. “I’m also working to have more celebrations of the accomplishments of our teams and younger scientists, which hasn’t typically been done in the past. I think it’s an important way to improve community and inspire.”

In addition to providing scientists a connection to other scientific communities around the world, the program also offers the associates access to resources to advance their careers.

“The rich environment provided by ICTP had a great impact on my career,” said Mouhamed Moustapha Fall, a mathematician, professor, and president at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Senegal and one of the first Simons Associates in 2014. “While at the ICTP, I studied new courses, like geometric analysis, which were not existing in my home country, and which now have become the field of research I focus on.”

Fall started working on a topic known as overdetermined boundary value problems during his ICTP associateship that led to him receiving the 2022 Ramanujan Prize, which is awarded annually to outstanding young mathematicians from developing countries.

Such career advances and scientific breakthroughs are not uncommon among Simons Associates. Many point to their stays at the ICTP as critical to their ability to get a lot of research done. During their stay at ICTP, the Simons Associates are housed on campus. For some, like Foa Torres, this saves them hours in commuting compared to their lives back home.

“My time at the ICTP is a mix of having so much extra dedicated time to focus on my research while also being packed with all these opportunities to collaborate with other scientists and attend lectures outside of my normal scope of study,” Foa Torres says. “It’s quite intensive and feels like getting into the mode of being a monk for a couple months.”

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The benefits of the time to focus extend far beyond just getting more work done, Foa Torres says. “There’s this compounding effect of having more connections to new colleagues, attending seminars, and so on that allows me to get so much more out of the program.”

“And once they return home, the associates teach and pass along the scientific knowledge they have acquired here at the ICTP to their students and their colleagues in their home scientific communities, which makes their impact so much greater,” Prelazzi adds. “This program not only helps their own career, but also their whole scientific community.”

That sentiment is often repeated by Simons Associates. Without the program, many of them would not have been able to make the scientific discoveries they have, nor help their home scientific communities.

“ICTP has given me so much — both personally and to my family and to my larger scientific community. It’s really helped our scientific community come out of isolation,” Farzan says. “I can’t imagine what my career would look like without the opportunities it’s provided me.”

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