Ani Aprahamian

Interview with AUA Supporter Ani Aprahamian

5 min read

Dr. Ani Aprahamian is director of the A. Alikhanyan National Laboratory of Armenia (AANL), formerly known as the Yerevan Physics Institute (YerPhi), and Frank M. Freimann Chair Professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, U.S. She is an experimental nuclear physicist interested in the origins of heavy elements in the universe and the evolution of structure in neutron-rich nuclei. Dr. Aprahamian was a keynote speaker at the 2019 AUA commencement. In our interview with her, she spoke about her current occupation, research interests, and incentives to relocate to Armenia. She also shared her vision of AUA’s role in the future of Armenia and why it is important to support the University.

Tell us about your vision and goals in your current role as director of A. Alikhanyan National Laboratory. 

I came to Armenia at the invitation of the Board of Trustees of A. Alikhanyan National Laboratory (AANL). I was in the international team of experts that had suggested to transform the former Yerevan Physics Institute to the National Laboratory of Armenia to assume a new direction that would include low energy nuclear science and applications of nuclear medicine, in addition to the fundamental sciences of high energy physics, astrophysics, cosmology, computation, isotopes, and applied sciences. As the director, I am continuing to support the existing directions and adding new ones. Part of my vision for AANL and strategy is converting its campus to an innovation and technology corridor. Also, my approach has been to build on our strengths in theoretical physics and to launch a new division in quantum computing. 

What research and/or projects are you currently involved in?

One of the new directions we are currently engaged in at AANL is the exploitation of low energy nuclear science to address a number of economic challenges in the Armenian market. For example, introducing nuclear medicine can be a game-changer for Armenia. The Armenian market is adversely impacted by 6.5% of the GDP from deaths of people with cancer at an early age before retirement. The successful operation of the cyclotron and the isotopes will provide for early diagnosis of the disease right here in Armenia instead of people having to travel overseas for it, often after the disease has progressed to an advanced stage.

I also intend to launch a division of quantum computing that would combine theory and experiment and to convert the campus to an innovation hub.

My own research interests are focused on nuclear astrophysics. At the moment, I am pursuing the measurements of long-lived fission products. These became important with the observation of gravitational waves along with electromagnetic transients coming from a two neutron star merger 132 light years away. The messengers arrived on earth in August of 2017. The signals explained many open questions but left a few unanswered ones for nuclear physics.

Why did you decide to move to Armenia and work here?

I moved here because I strongly believe that the successful future of Armenia is in knowledge and the impact of knowledge on the economy. The Yerevan Physics Institute did have the foundation and it is still the strongest scientific institution in Armenia. I felt that being here we can build on the strengths to become more current and timely. The rest of the world is putting in a lot of resources on applications of science and developing technologies. The scientists here were engaged in fundamental research and they are recognized for it worldwide. I hoped to add an application angle to that science side. I feel that is important for the Armenian economy. I kept my job at the University of Notre Dame in the USA. The generosity of my university allowed me to come to Armenia to take on this job!

What roles do you envision AUA and AANL would play for shaping the future of Armenia?

AUA has a crucial role to play in Armenia. AUA sets the necessary standards that other universities in Armenia must emulate. AUA brings a different perspective to the discussions on how to enhance science, education, and technology in Armenia. There are so many areas of expertise that are missing in Armenia for businesses, but are available at AUA. In my hiring, I am looking for AUA graduates. I am looking for experts that recognize human resources. This sort of expertise doesn’t seem to exist in Armenia. I am looking for CFOs who can operate on international levels. I am looking for people that can implement change. That is my agenda — to bring AANL to a level that we can be successful in competing for EU grants, and to prepare AANL scientists to play leading roles in the big projects in the world.

For example, in January 2020, the USA started to build a project called Electron Ion Collider. YerPhi was known for its expertise in electron physics. The ARUS electron accelerator was the first in the Soviet Union. Many of our experts went to Germany, USA, elsewhere to help build the Jefferson National Laboratory in the USA, worked with HERA at DESY in Germany. Now, we can again take leading roles in these big projects.

I see AUA as enriching the discussion in Armenia.

I see AUA helping bring Armenian talent to Europe, the USA, and the world.

I see AUA strengthening use of the English language and enabling Armenia to compete globally.

How would you evaluate the potential of local talent?

The local talent is mixed. Perhaps this is just a question of motivation. Young people have to see a future and have to believe in a future. There is a contingent that is open-minded,  hard-working, and forward-looking. Most of them are clever but do not know enough even though they think they know a lot. I think they need the experience outside of Armenia, specifically in science but we need them to come back and work here. I am surprised by the self-confidence of youth that is not justified by their performance. It is again a matter of perspective. If they could see the global competition, they would have a different opinion. I tell my students in the USA. YOu think you are smart and you are the creme de la creme…but countries like India and China have hundreds of millions of smart people. How will you compete? The answer is hard work and creative ideas.

What motivated you to become a supporter of the AUA scholarship program? 

I have been very impressed with AUA. I like what AUA is doing contributing to the discussion in Armenia about its future. I also think it is a great institution for diasporan as well as Armenian students to get a good education. Students who are here and those who come here from Syria and Lebanon.

What legacy would you like to pass on to future generations of Armenians?

Leadership in science requires leading by example. The salaries are quite low and hard to motivate bright, young people to work in science instead of elsewhere making more money. But the future is in science. Each technical or scientific post creates six other associated jobs. I would like Armenian students to hope, to have faith, to study science, and to work hard. 

Armenia has a tremendous diaspora with lots of expertise in all aspects. We should take advantage of that.