March 24, 2020
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Dr. Nia Imara ’03, a visual artist, advocate for equity in STEM and a John Harvard Distinguished Science Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, returned to Kenyon on April 26 to present some of her recent work. In a packed physics colloquium titled “Before the Stars,” Imara told tales from her research on molecular clouds, also known as stellar nurseries, which are self-gravitating concentrations of gases and dust particles that can accrete to form stars over the course of millions of years of collision and pressure. She shared stunning color telescope images of these stellar nurseries and explained how we can gather information on the physical properties of these clouds to understand how stars are born. Imara, who majored in mathematics and physics at Kenyon and was a member of the Ladies swim team, studies these stellar nurseries to glimpse snapshots of the process of star formation and trace the evolutionary history of our universe from patchy molecular clouds to stars and star clusters to full galaxies like our own Milky Way.
India Kotis ’20, an anthropology major from New York City, interviewed Imara for Lyceum, Kenyon’s student-run literary science magazine, about her career as both an astrophysicist and a visual artist. The interview is excerpted below:
NIA IMARA: I was in high school in my first physics class and pretty much knew from then that physics would be a major part of my life. I remember this teacher, he was a physics teacher, he was so dynamic and he had hair like Albert Einstein, coming to our math class to tell us about his physics class, about how challenging and how fun it would be. I was convinced, and I signed up for the class, and it was probably the first class of the semester when I realized that studying physics would help me find solutions to the questions that I had had for a long time. Questions about the universe, and fate; Questions about the nature of time. I would say that one of the things that keep pulling me back is that sense of having my mind expanded by new discoveries. Personal discoveries for me, both about the orderliness and strangeness of the universe. It’s the strangeness of the universe that has always been my favorite part of physics. It felt good to be challenged then, and it feels good to be challenged now.
INDIA KOTIS: Has studying physics informed the way you live your life at all?
NI: It’s a good question. It’s informed how I think. And I believe how we think informs how we live. So I wouldn’t be able to say in any sort of conscious, or any sort of specific way, how physics has affected how I live my life, other than the very practical things like I went to school for physics and grad school for astrophysics. But in sort of more fundamental ways, I wouldn’t be able to say other than I think my training as a scientist, you know, affects my thinking. And my thinking translates into how I live my life.
IK: What draws you to painting?
NI: My art is an extension of my preoccupation with color and light. Also with people, and beauty. I paint a lot of portraits. I’m fascinated with faces, with what’s showing up externally due to things that are happening internally. And I have all of these images and ideas in my head that want to come out and play and be seen. So that’s what compels me.
IK: Do you think art and astronomy have anything in common?
NI: The thing they have in common is me. Other than that, I don’t think they have anything inherently in common. On the other hand, it isn’t so difficult to find connections between most things in the world. But I find the way that academia and culture are in our society, everything is highly specialized and people tend to want to put things in boxes. But it hasn’t always been like that. And one of the things that I’ve been really interested in is how different cultures across history have naturally integrated the arts and sciences, and it wasn’t even a question of what they had in common. But in the abstract, art and astronomy don’t have that much in common. I think the commonalities arise from the people who practice them and experience them, and for me, light is one of the things that draws me to both. Astronomers are masters of light; light we can see and most of which we can’t see. And as a painter, and in my everyday life, I’m always thinking about light.
IK: You were the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, and you are also an advocate for equity in STEM. Last year, you founded the Equity and Inclusion Journal Club at Harvard. If there was a word you could give to other young people of color who want to be scientists, what would you tell them?
NI: Pursue your love. Stay hopeful. You’re needed.
Read the full interview and see some of Imara’s artwork online here.