Student Profile: Suchitra Narayanan

July 19, 2019

Suchitra headshot



UC Berkeley | Berkeley, CA | 2020


Academic Major: Chemical Engineering, Astrophysics


Hometown: Fremont, CA


“I design and build race cars -- more specifically the carbon fiber body work and aerodynamic wings!”


Tell us…


What is the topic of your research this summer and what are your related goals?


“Currently, I am working on a cosmology project with Michelle Ntampaka in Professor Daniel Eisenstein's group. I am using a Random Forest, a machine learning classification algorithm, to characterize galaxy cluster membership. Galaxy clusters are massive and rare; knowing their mass is essential to constraining cosmological models. However, in optical observations it is hard to determine galaxies that are in the fore- or background of the cluster. I have about 38,000 simulated clusters that I will use to train a machine learning model that can identify the interloping clusters! My related goals are to be able to present my work effectively at two conferences in October and January (SACNAS and AAS) as well as explore the intersection between science and society.”


What area of astronomy fascinates you most or brings out the most passion in you?


“Doing Model United Nations (MUN) for six years, in both high school and college, has shown me that astronomy can bring people together in a way no other field does. There is this sense that no one knows what is out there! Great things have come from nations working together, like the International Space Station (ISS) with its 20-year history of international cooperation or even the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which captured the first image of a black hole. Collaboration in astronomy is essential because of the sheer magnitude of the Universe. I get excited about working with objects that are light years away from us and using them to understand the Universe at large and how life came to exist. I am also excited about combining my passions for chemistry, engineering, and astronomy via astrochemistry — specifically to understand the formation of complex organic molecules in space.”


What do you aspire to do?


“Astronomy fuels my curiosity whereas research satisfies it. I will be a senior in the fall semester, so my short term goals are related to graduate applications. I could see myself working in instrumentation within astrochemistry to build tools to collect data which I will then analyze, drawing on my past experience with the research and tools in chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering as well as astrophysics. I think I am driven by a search for knowledge and making it accessible to everyone. I believe that science and policy are fundamentally intertwined, and I want to use my platform to liaise between the general public, politicians, and the scientific community. As a scientist, I want to bring attention to policies that affect communities and the world, while pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the universe. Ultimately, I want to better the world through civic action and through my research.”


What significant lessons have you learned this summer so far?


“The skills I’ve picked up in machine learning, research, and networking will be useful in graduate school. Aside from those, I’ve learned the importance of community and creating safe spaces for those who need them. My time at Banneker is the longest and farthest I have been away from home, and while there have been bouts of homesickness, I have people around me who care. I have never been part of a community like this one at Banneker and the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), with so many like-minded individuals who are passionate about the astronomical sciences. I think we all can gain more by putting process over product and letting any end results come naturally. I am learning so much just taking each day one at a time and enjoying being in this intense but rewarding environment. I also learned that I love New England and would love to leave NorCal for the east coast!”


What parts of your experience with Banneker would you like to see modeled in the broader astronomy community?


Banneker emphasizes community, which is quite important in fields like astronomy where traditionally marginalized folks can feel ostracized. I have struggled as an engineering student to show that my knowledge is transferable to physics, and I have been written off by some who see my majors as mutually exclusive. Banneker, however, has helped me succeed in my scientific pursuits alongside people who celebrate uniqueness, encourage my abilities, and welcome different perspectives. I appreciate being around people who have been through similar experiences as I have (in two STEM fields) as a woman of color and an immigrant. I hope to bridge the gap between astronomy and community!”


What would you say to a student who is considering applying to Banneker in the future? Can you recall the reasons you applied?

Banneker is essentially [a simulation of] the first ten weeks of graduate school. It will be difficult and will challenge you in ways you didn’t expect, but you can do it! Be prepared for lots of work, learning, growth, and—of course—memories! I applied to the program because of my background in Model United Nations (MUN) and my experience as a fellow in a congressional campaign. I am passionate about the issues affecting the world and I wanted space to discuss them in an academic and scientific context. Banneker has given me a community that I am so grateful for!”