High SchoolAmherst Regional High School
Undergraduate EducationB.Sc. in Materials Science and Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2022
Neosha Narayanan’s life is a complex tapestry of interests, questions, and experiences, as varied as the materials she studies as a student of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. She is a scientist, a writer, an athlete, a dancer, a musician, and a photographer, among many other things. For someone who taught herself to knit and crochet at an early age, the comparison to the variable hues, textures, and properties of fabric seems apt. “I love how you can alter the stitches of something you’re creating and how its morphology can change depending on the tightness or thickness of the yarn or how many stitches you put on a row,” she says. And then she takes the wider view. “I think of the Antarctic ice sheet as a big piece of fabric that covers the end of the world. From a distance, it all looks the same, but once you get close up, you can see all of the microstructures that determine the behavior of the ice at the macroscale level.”
And there you have a window into the mind of this remarkable individual. Endlessly curious, concerned with both the micro and the macro, Neosha’s inquisitive mind can easily assimilate seemingly disparate strands of information into a cohesive narrative. Take, for example, a National Science Foundation-funded field research program to study the Greenland ice sheet that Neosha participated in during the summer after her junior year at Amherst Regional High School. The experience was a formative one for Neosha, providing her the opportunity both to stand in awe of the Arctic’s stark beauty and to see the impact of climate change on indigenous populations. “Visiting the ice sheet was insane,” she recalls. “We camped in a tent on a three-kilometer-thick sheet of ice. Everywhere you looked in every single direction was pure white. You could walk in one direction for 5 minutes and easily get lost. I also learned that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, even though the people who inhabit it live more sustainably than us in the U.S.”
The injustice of this weighed on Neosha, and was a motivation for applying to MIT. She declared a materials science and engineering major early on, thinking she would focus on engineering solutions for sustainability and climate change. Surprisingly, it was the COVID-19 pandemic, which dashed the plans of so many college students, that provided some necessary time and space to reflect on the path she had been traveling. “I realized that I didn’t have a love for engineering,” says Neosha. “To me, the difference between science and engineering is the reward. The goal of engineering is to build something that does a task better than a previous version did or that previously was not possible. The goal of science is to learn something new about how the world works. The goal is discovery. I didn’t so much want to build this thing or that thing. I wanted to know how things work. I realized that I’m more of a scientist. ”
Perhaps it is because of Neosha’s willingness to chart her own path and defy societal and cultural norms that she was able to embrace this insight, which required shifting gears late in her college career. “I’m a first-generation Indian American, the first person in my family to be born in the U.S.,” explains Neosha. “There weren’t that many other Indian kids growing up in Amherst. Race definitely played a big part in my feeling of ‘otherness’ in school. I often felt like I didn’t fit in, even though I wanted to. The same is true in my life as a cyclist and a musician—there is a huge lack of representation of South Asian women in these communities. Being first in many ways has been lonely. At the same time, being first has meant that there hasn’t been a precedent for me. I do things for my own reasons, not because I feel constrained to only follow the examples of others.”
And there we see the heart of Neosha the scientist on display, in her relentless pursuit of the things that interest her, the passions that inspire her, the questions that call to her. Like so many Thoreau Scholars before her, the questions Neosha chases will no doubt lead to new and creative outcomes for the betterment of us all. We’ll be standing by and watching.