Astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan on Understanding Dark Matter, Black Hole, Universe, and Her Life Journey

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NEW HAVEN, CT–Priyamvada Natarajan is an astrophysicist, and the inaugural Joseph S. and Sophia S. Fruton Professor in Astronomy & Physics at Yale University. She is known for her seminal work on the invisible Universe – the formation and growth of black holes; mapping dark matter and dark energy; and the assembly history of supermassive black holes over cosmic time.

On Oct. 29, 2023, Prof. Natrajan will be honored at the annual New England Choice Awards at Burlington Marriott Hotel in Burlington, MA, for her outstanding contribution in the field of academia. In an exclusive video interview with INDIA New England News, she talks about her journey. To watch the full interview, please click here, or on the image below.

The recipient of many awards and honors, including fellowships of the APS; the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the AAAS; the Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships, Prof. Natrajan was recognized with the 2022 Liberty Science Center ‘Genius Award.’ She has served as Chair of the National Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee that advises NASA, NSF and DoE; as Chair of the Division of Astrophysics of the APS and currently serves on the Scientific Editorial Board of the AAS Journals.

With undergraduate degrees from M.I.T, she received her PhD from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, where she was elected a Fellow of Trinity College and was the first woman to be elected in Astrophysics. She is the current Chair of the Department of Astronomy and an external PI at the Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book, Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas that Reveal the Cosmos, published by Yale Press and is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.

Here is a Q/A with Prof. Natrajan.

INDIA New England News: Who has influenced you most in your personal and professional life?

Priyamvada Natarajan: My parents have influenced me the most deeply in my life both personal and professional. As academics they modeled for me that a life of the mind is deeply satisfying, rewarding and fun. They enabled me to follow my dreams, soar and shine. I am grateful and feel very lucky to have their unconditional support.

I recently lost my dad, who was so proud of this recognition. He always told me that recognition from one’s own people has a special place. I miss him terribly on occasions like this which he relished. Professionally, I have had multiple mentors starting from Dr. Nirupama Raghavan, who was the Director of the Nehru Planetarium in New Delhi when I was in school. I got my first taste of research in science working with her – and it was love at first encounter! Most of my teachers at Delhi Public School, many faculty at MIT including in particular Alan Guth and Evelyn Fox Keller. My PhD advisor in Cambridge, Sir Martin Rees, members of my thesis committee like Donald Lynden-Bell and Stephen Hawking. I have some wonderful colleagues in the astrophysics community, brilliant scientists and empathetic wonderful human beings who inspire me in my work.

INE: How do you define success and the three key ingredients of success?

PN: Success is deeply personal, and everyone needs to craft their own definitions and keep refining them as they learn and grow in life. For me success is what brings joy (mudita) and contentment. There are many ingredients to success that depend on one’s definition. It’s not a recipe with ingredients, that is not quite how I view it. My own definition of success has evolved over time.

INE: Your two favorite books?

PN: Other than my parents’ own books! Collectively they have written many…The Times Atlas of the World – I love maps.

INE: Your two favorite quotes or sayings?

PN: I cannot single out two – Max Ehrmann’s poem Desiderata contains many gems as do many poems by Elizabeth Bishop.

INE:  Your hobby?

PN: Reading – I am a voracious reader of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

INE:  Your passion?

PN: The Universe & Art – appreciating and trying to comprehend this completely other beautiful way of making sense of the world.

INE: Why you do what you do?

ON: Am driven by the sheer and simple joy of figuring things out. –

INE: Which non-profits are you involved with and why?

PN: I serve as the Director of the Board of the Edge Certificaiton Foundation, which is a non-profit based in Zug, Switzerland that works towards workplace diversity, equity and inclusion.

I also serve on the Board of Indiaspora, which is a global organization for Indian origin leaders, thinkers and changemakers. I have been involved with them since their inception.

INE: If you get a second chance, what will you chose as your new career and why?

PN: I would choose the same career. When I was in school for a nanosecond, really it was that brief, I flirted with the idea of becoming an architect. And when I was finishing up my undergraduate education at MIT, I was torn between wanting to know the world (science) and change the world (doing something immediately impactful to make people’s lives better). I realized that I was best suited to being a scientist and a broad thinker who solves complex problems.

INE: Your favorite Bollywood and Hollywood actors and actresses?

PN: I don’t watch many Bollywood movies and I am definitely not up to date on them – they are just too long to hold my interest. I simply cannot sit still for 3+ hours! Smita Patil was a favorite and so is John Abraham.

Hollywood favorites are Brad Pitt, Olivier Martinez, Halle Berry and Juliet Binoche

INE: Your all-time favorite songs?

PN: I love music of all kinds – Indian classical vocal (Bhimsen Joshi, M.S. Subbalakshmi, Begum Akhtar, Farida Khanum), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and instrumental (Hariprasad Chaurasia, Amjad Ali Khan, T.N. Krishnan), Western Classical music (Pablo Cassals), Opera (Maria Callas, Bryn Terfel), blues, jazz, reggie, pop…

Songs too many really – Farida Khanum’s Aaj Jaane ki Zid na Karo, Vatapi Ganapatim (Raga Hamsadhwani), Bach’s Cello Suites, Meera bhajans.

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