Much ink has been spilled over the poor performance of American students in science and math. But according to Yale University theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan, “What we really ought to be worried about is the scientific ignorance of American adults.”
“If American adults don’t know the structure of the atom, that’s a blot on our national scientific literacy. But if American adults don’t understand how vaccines work or how carbon emissions are heating up the earth, we have a catastrophe on our hands,” writes Natarajan in the Huffington Post.
While it’s easy to blame this scientific ignorance on “American schools”—as if they were a monolith—Natarajan takes another perspective. “Part of the blame can be attributed to my community, that of scientists. We have not been very effective in translating and communicating our practices, the results of our research, and its implications to the public in clear terms,” she writes. And as both a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University, a former Guggenheim fellow, and an internationally sought-after speaker, Natarajan is taking on the responsibility of educating the world’s brightest students—and the general public—about cosmology, gravitational lensing, and black-hole physics, which are her areas of expertise.
Born in Delhi, Natarajan’s “personal love affair with the cosmos” began when she first looked through a telescope as a girl and saw Halley’s Comet fly by. “That was it, I was hooked,” Natarajan explains in an INKtalk. “From then on, I’ve been one of these cosmic explorers: people who are looking to understand and make sense of the grandest things in the universe, which luckily—given who we are, and where we are technologically and scientifically—are actually comprehensible.” Through her use of simple yet illuminating metaphors, Natarajan is helping make the discoveries of the cosmos even more comprehensible.
In an interview with Quartz, Natarajan explains why being willing to change your mind is at the heart of scientific success and describes how being a woman and person of color propelled her career forward.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
I am obsessed with trying to understand why there is such rampant denialism of science in our country. I find this exuberant irrationalism extremely disturbing. And this is particularly troubling, because I am a professional scientist.
Demystifying the process of science is what is needed to tackle this scourge. It is my idea that the public needs to be better educated about the nature of scientific inquiry and how the scientific process works. I firmly believe that this is the only effective way forward to combat the widespread distrust in facts and science. Essentially, we all need to learn to be open-minded and ready to revise our understanding and beliefs. Being nimble and ready to change our minds if need be is an attribute that is crucial to live and thrive in a society that is powered by science and technology, both as an individual and as an engaged citizen.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Mental discipline and tenacity in the face of obstacles are traits that have greatly helped me in both my personal and professional journey thus far. I am also very optimistic by nature and tend to focus on the positive and remain hopeful when faced with adversity.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
I can think of one intervention on the widest scales, and one that is more specific to my professional domain. On the largest scale, I think sincerely implementing equal pay for equal work is urgently needed. It is the 21st century, and I cannot believe that this still remains to be done. It is really shocking, and it’s about time that we as a society embraced it en masse. It is a fundamental demonstration of respect to women to value their work equally.
In my profession, I think what would be impactful is anonymizing activities like double-blind refereeing of research papers and grants. For me personally, it would be an honor and privilege to belong to the generation that has leveled the playing field and has worked hard to mitigate the implicit biases that we all incidentally carry. This is the legacy that I aspire to leave for future generations of women: an equitable workplace and a more equal world.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I wish I had known that the conflict I experienced at the start of my career—the feeling of being an outsider on many different dimensions while really wanting to belong—would actually end up being a major asset in forging my professional path.
I have always felt like an outsider in some way or another, be it as a child growing up in North India while being South Indian, when I first moved to a new culture as an undergraduate in the US, or when I moved to the UK as a graduate student. Later in life, I felt like an outsider as a woman in physics, as a person with wide and varied intellectual interests in a profession that tends to venerate only a specific kind of narrowly defined expertise, and as a woman who made a personal choice to not have children.
Feeling like an outlier, in many ways, was restrictive and made me feel excluded. This nagging mental tussle was a major handicap, as it was sapping my energy from time to time. However, since I had coped with this internal tension my entire life, I did not realize that I had developed the skills and internal resources to reconcile and navigate it. In fact, all this practice and consequent resilience that it generated has proved to be really empowering in the long run. It has crucially helped me to stay authentic, be my total self, and not transform or capitulate to the dominant paradigm of what it takes to be successful in academia. I was forced to construct my own definition of success from the beginning, which it turns out is the only kind that matters, as it is the only kind that is fulfilling and enduring.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
I was most despondent when I went through an emotional trauma early on in my career, when I was really young, in my mid-20s. I had a protracted divorce after a brief starter marriage, and I experienced it as a monumental personal failure.
I turned it around by immersing myself in my research work, as I was just starting my PhD at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge at the time. I had to rebuild my sense of self-belief and trust, which had been demolished. The invaluable lesson it taught me was to not fear failure and to trust in myself, my capabilities, my intuition, and my judgement. Professionally, this life lesson has enabled me to take intellectual risks and fearlessly develop my personal scientific style.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I have never consciously cultivated professional relationships or networks. Contrary to the stereotype of physicists being aloof and awkward, I am actually extremely social by nature; I am very interested in and really enjoy interacting with people. In particular, I love figuring out how others think, and how their perspective has been shaped by who they are and their varied personal and professional trajectories. This has meshed well with the collaborative and global nature of my professional world of science. As part of research work, we interact across geographical borders and always have. This is one feature of academic scientific research that I have always found very seductive and appealing.
For my research projects in cosmology, I collaborate primarily with people I like and enjoy working with. It has been really fun to explore the deepest, darkest mysteries of the universe with other cosmic explorers. Generosity, open-mindedness, curiosity, and patience are what have defined the strongest professional relationships that I have nurtured and sustained over time. Given the breadth of my interests in science, the arts, and culture, I have managed to build a wide circle of colleagues and friends over the years who are engaged in all manner of scientific, intellectual, and creative pursuits.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I ever received and continue to receive is from my mother—actually, both my parents. They are my personal heroes and inveterate cheerleaders. Aside from their unconditional love and support, which nurtures me every day, on a practical level they remind me of what all my mind is capable of, they help me keep the larger picture in view, and have always encouraged me to take the high road when I am all tangled up in some petty issue that is taking up too much mental space. Their unwavering faith in my capabilities has been the bedrock. All of this is something that I am super grateful for every day, as I feel really lucky—I definitely did win the birth lottery.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
To cut out the “mansplaining” already—it is just too boring, and the condescension is annoying.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that everyone ought to skydive and experience free fall under gravity, even if it’s just once! It’s an unparalleled feeling of freedom that’s totally worth it, despite the risk.
I wish people would stop telling me… and the world that there is a well-defined track to success.
Everyone should own… a watch to remind them be present in the here and now, and notice that the moment to live, savor, and enjoy is now.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.