How a small-town girl went on to become an astrophysicist? Listen to Nitya Kallivayalil

Nitya Kallivayalil always had her eyes on the stars. Even as a child, she enjoyed looking at the sky and asking exciting questions about the universe. This is probably what prompted her to later become an astrophysicist.

The 42-year-old from Peruvanthanam, near Mundakayam, is now a well-known name in the field and works as an associate professor of astronomy, art and science at the University of Virginia, USA. She recently won the Teaching Award 2022, which recognizes the best teachers from different colleges of the university.

Nitya with her husband, Dr. Simon Pollillo: Special arrangement

Nitya attended Pallikoodam in Kottayam and The Lawrence School in Ooty. She received her International Baccalaureate (IB) from United World Colleges, an undergraduate degree from Mt. Holyoke College (BA), a graduate (master) degree from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and a doctorate from Harvard University, followed by the two post-doctoral fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale.

Here is an excerpt from an email interview with her.
What was your first reaction when you found out about the award? How do you feel now?
I was incredibly excited and honored to have been selected! I am also very grateful for all the work my nominators have done and for the students who have supported me. I’ve always found teaching very challenging and the award makes me feel like maybe I’m on the right track.

How has teaching changed you personally?
Teaching has forced me to think critically about how people learn. And the more I teach, the clearer it becomes that project-based learning is the only real way to build knowledge and develop concepts. Teaching also keeps me humble. It forces you to be a lifelong learner.

How did your interest in astrophysics come about?
I was always very fascinated by the big questions: how did we get here? How did the universe begin and how/will it end? What is it made of? But reading has allowed me to grapple with these concepts and to realize that it might also be a career option. The book that really impressed me as a child was Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think. The title definitely drew me in. More specifically, he describes the investigation into the Challenger space shuttle crash. Showing the process of science through the lens of a detective story really made it all come alive for me.

They specialize in near-field cosmology. Why is?
The ultimate goal of near-field cosmology is to use the very high resolution we can achieve in the local universe, i.e. the ability to resolve nearby galaxies into their individual stellar constituents, to test our ideas of what the universe is made of out of. The fact that we are getting such high-resolution data makes it difficult to hide discrepancies between the data and theoretical predictions. I think it’s a very promising regime to advance our understanding of how galaxies evolve over time and what role dark matter, the dominant bulk component of the Universe, plays in this evolution.

What do you think is the scope for a similar field in India?
I think the scope is really good because a lot of the relevant datasets, both current and planned, are all openly accessible. What we need is to attract ambitious young scientists to the field and to invest in their future success. Over the next decade, I would like to deepen my relationships with Indian institutions that train students in astrophysics.

What are your interests outside of science?
I’m obsessed with martial arts! As a kid in Kottayam, I used to attend Kalaripayattu classes at Nehru Stadium and was absolutely fascinated. I now train boxing and muay thai (Thai boxing) although I would really like to train at Kalari if I had access. I like to work (very slowly) on my long-term training goals.

Do you visit Kottayam often? Has this place contributed to your growth?
I wish I could stop by more often! Yes, I think it had a big impact on my growth. Education and educational opportunities enjoy a high priority. I didn’t miss that as a kid. I went to Pallikoodam School up until the 4th grade and was just blown away. I remember there was a lot of emphasis on creativity in the classroom, and I think creativity is an important, perhaps overlooked, part of the scientific process.

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