Aparna Venkatesan, Assoc. Professor, Physics & Astronomy

Galaxy Quest

Exploring outer space and making science more inclusive for women and minorities.

Aparna Venkatesan was the first female undergraduate to earn a degree from Cornell University’s astronomy department, in the 1990s. Two decades later, women and minorities still face an uphill battle for science-related careers, says Aparna, now chair of USF’s physics and astronomy department.

“There’s this feeling of incredible isolation if you’re a woman or a minority in the hard sciences,” Aparna says. “There’s a feeling of not belonging. Even today, sadly, it’s not uncommon at a typical university to see only one woman in a physics class.”

Aparna is fostering a different kind of environment at USF. That’s why one of her priorities is taking time to meet individually with physics and astronomy students — particularly women and minorities — to help them through challenges. By keeping her door open and inviting students for lunchtime chats, she creates the kind of mentoring connections that served her well throughout her career. She’s particularly proud of her relationships with her research students, many of whom go on to pursue advanced degrees in science.

For a department with only six or seven full-time faculty, we are delivering a huge program here — strong physics curricular training, cutting-edge research opportunities in physics and astronomy, and great professional development.”

“In my student days, a few professors or colleagues suggested I wasn’t cut out for this or that I should leave the field,” says Aparna. “But I’ve also had these gems along my path — mentors, colleagues, and grant officers who made the time to support and encourage me. I want to do the same for our students who don’t fit the typical mold of the physics or astronomy major.”

It’s a commitment she’s taking on in various roles: She’s a council member of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for the Status of Minorities, and she volunteers time each school year presenting on science and astronomy to young children in San Francisco public schools.

USF’s Jesuit emphasis on diversity complements her ambition: “It’s a very inclusive philosophy, and I think inclusiveness is what the sciences need more of,” she says.

Aparna came to USF in 2006 with the goal of expanding its astronomy and astrophysics programs. There was only one astronomy class at the time. She worked with Professor Horacio Camblong to implement two new minors in astronomy and astrophysics, and to create popular introductory classes like Planetary Astronomy — a class that draws hundreds of students with diverse majors each year.

“It’s nice to see the program take off,” Aparna says. “Our research students are presenting nationally, they’re winning awards.”

Recently, Aparna won a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research with the world’s largest radio telescope in Puerto Rico. She and her students, along with a consortium of 19 other colleges, will conduct a census of nearby galaxies.

“For a department with only six or seven full-time faculty, we are delivering a huge program here — strong physics curricular training, cutting-edge research opportunities in physics and astronomy, and great professional development,” Aparna says. “Anywhere our students go for graduate school, they feel really well prepared.”