‘My research revolves around understanding the universe and the forces that drive and affect it. For me, being a scientist means delving into the unknown through my research. It’s the ultimate pursuit of knowledge and I can’t imagine any career more satisfying!’

This is the succinct summary of the focus of Prof Soebur Razzaque, a distinguished physicist who currently holds the position of Distinguished Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Johannesburg. A full professor since 2013, he is the Founding Director of the Centre for Astro-Particle Physics (CAPP) established in 2018. Prof Razzaque also maintains a Research Professor affiliation at the George Washington University in Washington DC (USA).

‘We tackle fascinating questions about what the universe is made of, what dark matter and dark energy are, what happens close to a black a hole, etc. Helping to develop critical thinking, mathematical skills and computer programming are some of the most important practical implications of the theoretical and computational work that I do,’ he explains.

Prof Razzaque further clarifies that his research focuses on theoretical and computational aspects of astro-particle physics and high-energy astrophysics. His specific interests lie in neutrino, cosmic ray, and gamma-ray astrophysics, neutrino physics, and multiwavelength and multi-messenger astronomy.

‘I analyse and interpret data from sources such as the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, IceCube Neutrino Telescope and the Pierre Auger Cosmic-ray Detector to help build models that may explain the workings of our universe. Most of the challenges in my profession arise when we discover something new. We then need to understand the inner workings of the discovery and develop mathematical models to explain those. Those challenges are overcome when we find a satisfactory model to describe the discovery, which can be a new type of star or galaxy, a new signal from a known object in the sky or even hints of new physics not found before.’

‘Indeed’, Prof Razzaque says ‘my research field, especially multi-messenger astronomy, is a hot area of research globally, after the discovery of gravitational waves by LIGO in 2017 that lead to a Nobel Prize in Physics. Discovery of high-energy neutrinos from astrophysical sources in 2013 is another milestone in my field. For the first time we can now “look” at the sky in ways other than electromagnetic waves.’

He stresses that ‘this is a growing field which appears in the Astronomy roadmaps of both in the USA and Europe, with billions of dollars funding. In South Africa, activities in astro-particle physics and high-energy astrophysics are supported by DSI/NRF through the SA-GAMMA Programme. Researchers at UJ, Wits, NWU, UFS and SAAO are involved in this effort. They actively take part in big international collaborations in this field.’

Therefore, ‘young scientists should consider that research in this field teaches many skills which are very relevant in the 21st century, such as computation, data analysis etc. These skills make them sought-after individuals in the workforce of today’s world where 4IR skills are valued.’

Career path
Prof Razzaque earned his BSc in Physics in 1994 and MSc in Physics in 1996 (both from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh), and Diploma in High Energy Physics from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, in 1997.

‘My MSc supervisor was particularly helpful on my career path by introducing and guiding me through my research project, and by helping me to find an opportunity to pursue my PhD studies,’ he says.

Following the completion of his PhD in Physics from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, USA (2002), Prof Razzaque carried out postdoctoral research at Penn State University. He won the prestigious National Research Council Research Associateship of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) and conducted research in the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. Prior to joining the University of Johannesburg, he served as a Research Associate Professor at George Mason University in Virginia (USA).

Until now, Prof Razzaque has authored over 80 theory papers (with total publications over 200). He is a member of the Large Area Telescope (LAT) Collaboration of NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, of the next generation ground-based gamma-ray observatory (the Cherenkov Telescope Array or CTA) consortium, and of the KM3NeT neutrino observatory currently under construction in the Mediterranean Sea.

Outreach, collaboration and the value of science
Prof Razzaque’s dedication extends beyond research and is passionate about science outreach. He actively mentors postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows while delivering engaging lectures at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. He is a regular participant at local and international conferences, which fosters collaboration and dissemination of his research findings.

He elaborates on the value of scientific endeavour: ‘I enjoy building mathematical models, analysing data and interpreting results. Hopefully, in the process of doing what I love, I get to discover something new that can contribute to our overall understanding of how our universe works. Another exciting aspect that makes research so fascinating is the collaborative spirit. You do not work in isolation as a researcher, you get to interact with many other researchers in your field, to help build the bigger picture. I’ve met so many interesting scientists, from all over the world, in my career.’

Importantly, he says, research does not happen in a vacuum or in isolation. ‘In reality, the most exciting discoveries happen where research overlaps with other fields. Take the interaction of astro-particle physics and mathematics as an example. Mathematics helps astrophysicists to build models that can explain the way that the data we are analysing is behaving. The application of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) is another example. Collaboration is not just about finding common ground between different fields of research, but it’s also about unlocking new possibilities for research. Research in other fields can help our own understanding in our field and help to lead to new breakthroughs we might not otherwise have had. This is why it is so incredibly important to foster interdisciplinary collaboration!’

Prof Razzaque adds: ‘I am fortunate enough to be a NITheCS Associate and a grant recipient. Organisations like NITheCS play a crucial role in the South African research landscape for researchers involved in theoretical and computational fields. It provides a platform for interaction, training for postgraduate students in subjects that are not offered at the South African universities and bursaries for students and some research funding. Recently NITheCS has been working as a catalyst for multi-disciplinary research, which is very important.

Finally, he stresses: ‘Science is more than a career; it is a way of living that impacts the way we see the world and how we fit into it. It expands your perspective and makes you a truly global citizen.’