Yale professor named to inaugural position in physics and astronomy department

The Priyamvada Natarajan Chair of Astronomy was appointed Joseph S. and Sophia S. Fruton Professor of Astronomy and Professor of Physics.

Elizabeth Watson

12:23 a.m., Sep 09, 2022

Staff reporter

Priyamvada Natarajan

Priyamvada Natarajan, chair of Yale’s astronomy department, was named the Joseph S. and Sophia S. Fruton Professor of Astronomy and Professor of Physics.

Natarajan’s new title honors the legacy of Joseph S. Fruton and Sophia S. Simmonds, two biochemists who taught at Yale and were known for their contributions to research and education. Natarajan was informed of the appointment in May by university president Peter Salovey.

“I came to this country as an international undergraduate student; I was at MIT and my family was in India,” Natarajan said. “I’ve lived here as an international researcher and, of course, I’m an American citizen, but this stuff really adds a sense of belonging. [The position] matches my values. For me, it was really important. Here are people who know me, who know and understand what I stand for. I defend equal opportunities and the recognition of all genders in science.

After graduating from MIT and earning her PhD at the University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, Natarajan came to Yale as an assistant professor in the physics and astronomy departments in 2000. Since then, Natarajan has worked on research in theoretical physics, specifically relating to black holes.

Black holes were often thought to form after the later stages of a star’s life cycle. However, the seeds of black holes, or the first black holes, that result from this process are often only a few times the mass of our solar system’s sun, and there is not enough time for these seeds to reach the size of known supermassive black holes, which can be tens of billions of times larger than the mass of the sun, according to Natarajan. To explain this discrepancy, Natarajan and his collaborators have proposed a theory that these larger black holes result from extremely large black hole seeds that originated without star formation.

“We have very clear predictions for the James Webb Space Telescope, and we made those predictions long before the telescope launched in 2017,” Natarajan said. “I have been working for almost more than a decade on making these predictions come true. It was very difficult because the computers weren’t fast enough and you couldn’t simulate everything. So we had to wait until computers got more sophisticated and instruments from a new facility like James Webb could be tested. That’s what really excites me right now. »

Natarajan is also one of the main researchers working on the Harvard Black Hole Initiative. As part of this initiative, she maps dark matter with gravitational lensing, which relates to how light bends in response to matter. Natarajan observes this bending of light and uses the degree of distortion to check the details of dark matter in a given galaxy. This type of mapping can help scientists develop a better understanding of dark matter and, therefore, the universe.

“There is no doubt that Professor Natarajan is one of the world’s leading experts in the study of massive black holes and dark matter,” said Michael Tremmel, postdoctoral researcher at the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Over the course of his career, his work advanced the field and in many cases opened up entirely new avenues of research that remain active today.

Erica Nelson, assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who was mentored by Natarajan as a graduate student, agreed.

“I always felt like she had my back and was by my side,” Nelson said. “Graduate school is a very vulnerable time in terms of confidence and whether or not you feel you deserve to be there, and it always gave me confidence and inspiration that I could do it and I did. good work and that she respected my intelligence. She has always been a very positive influence in my graduate career. I literally wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.

Natarajan is currently director of the Franke Program in Science and Humanities at Yale.


Elizabeth Watson covers groundbreaking research for SciTech and illustrates for various sections. She is a sophomore at Pauli Murray College and plans to major in science and humanities.

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