Updated: Mar 3, 2021
By Jaden Jarmel-Schneider
During her first-year Accelerated Physics course, Anjali Verma’s professor, Brian Cole, told her to check out the Society for Physics Students. It’s where the bright physics students congregate, he told her. When she showed up to the first meeting, in a dingy Pupin room, no one would talk to her. She describes the huddle of students—mostly men, mostly white—who had found community in one another and in the department. When she confided in her friends later, they told her that these were physics guys—they were probably just awkward. She wasn’t so sure. Three years later, she tells me, assuredly, that they were just rude.
Anjali, SEAS ‘21, studies Applied Physics. When I ask what this means, she jumps into a lengthy explanation that includes terms like “kinetic constants” and “canonical enzymatic processes,” often rushing over her words with what seems like pure enthusiasm for the field. Throughout her jargon-packed explanations of biophysical processes, interjected with casual phrases like “stuff like that,” I nod and laugh occasionally, hoping she won’t notice how much of it is flying over my head.
She tells me that her favorite concept in physics has to do with the way that Gauss’s Law—a theorem that relates electric charges to electric fields—works so neatly because of a rudimentary geometric principle. It’s basic math, she tells me, but it dictates something crucial about the physical world. This interdisciplinary mode of thinking encapsulates Anjali’s understanding of her role as a scientist: she can run complex protein simulations in her sleep, but science is just as much about subverting the kind of physics that tells its students to bury their heads in quarks and shoot for the Nobel.
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
Early on, she drops in a phrase that she repeats in one form or another several times during our conversation: “socially and culturally responsible physics.” Originally drawn to science out of a pure interest for the concepts, Anjali found her way to this idea in a neuroscience lab at CUNY Stony Brook as a high school student researching opioid addiction, which has plagued her school district in recent years. This research opportunity introduced her to biophysics, but it also led her to the type of science that values social problems as much as it values theoretical ones.
She now works in Professor Ruben Gonzalez’s molecular biophysics lab, where she helps research ribosomal protein synthesis. The idea, as she tells me, is that if you can better understand protein translation, you can better predict how diseases affect the body. “A lot of physics tends to be not super applicable to human life,” she says. “So this helps me a lot because I can use a lot of the concepts to have more direct human impact than a lot of the physics that goes on at Columbia.” I ask her if the lab is thinking about COVID-19. They’re not focused on it, she says, but “how could you not?”
As Anjali sees it, science with a clear social impetus is sparse in Columbia’s physics department. The department is focused instead on cultivating a “lone genius mentality,” assuring its students that anything short of pure dedication to theory is a waste of time. “There’s this culture in physics like if you don’t get it the first time or in lecture, maybe you don’t deserve to get it at all, maybe this isn’t the right place for you because if you were smart enough to be a physicist, you would have gotten it the first time,” she says.
This culture is bound to pervade what Anjali describes as a detached field that attracts detached people, but at Columbia, it is exacerbated by race- and class-based inequities. At a school that recruits so heavily from wealthy preparatory schools that offer high-level physics courses, Accelerated Physics at Columbia is a review for some students, creating a dynamic that nurtures superiority complexes en masse. But for many others, especially those from underfunded and understaffed public schools, it is easy to fall behind and stay there, and to internalize the institutional narrative of undeservedness.
While Anjali sees isolation as a huge obstacle for students of color in STEM, she finds a sense of responsibility in practicing science. She tells me that every person of color in STEM is forced to choose between pursuing their intellectual interests and engaging in the freedom struggle. Her grandfather, one of the first union organizers of banana farmers in the Caribbean, could never understand her dedication to science. “How could you work on molecules when we aren’t free?” he would ask. As she nears graduation, Anjali has honed her compromise: She shows up to science, but only as her full self, never succumbing to the narratives about science that institutions like Columbia try so hard to inculcate within their students.
For Anjali, this has meant reforming the physics department. She has focused her efforts on the department in CC because as far as she can tell, the Applied Physics and Applied Math Department in SEAS is a lost cause: They stopped responding to her requests for change after the murder of George Floyd this summer. The biggest crusade was transforming the struggling Society for Women in Physics into an expansive community-building and mentorship organization. Most recently, Anjali campaigned to change the name of their headquarters in Pupin to the C.S. Wu Room, in honor of one of the few women of color who worked on the Manhattan Project. To date, it is the only room in Pupin with pictures of women on the walls. “We have created a space and done a lot to create community in a way that existed if you were a male student who took 2800, Accelerated Physics, and went to Society of Physics Students to see research talks,” she says. “If you were well-represented by physics and already saw yourself as a physicist, there was community at Columbia for you, but for every other person, that wasn’t there.”
Anjali’s efforts to build community for students of color at Columbia extend beyond the department. This summer, in the wake of the political and social upheaval that erupted across the country following the murder of George Floyd, she worked with a small cohort to revitalize Columbia Mobilized African Diaspora (MAD). MAD was born in 2014 after the murders of Treyvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, then rose again when Alexander McNab, CC ‘19, was assaulted and detained by Barnard Public Safety last spring.
Most recently, the MAD team drafted a list of demands for the University. Taken together, the detailed demands aim to hold President Bollinger accountable: You’ve sent us the requisite emails about racial diversity and community involvement, but did you mean it? MAD wants Columbia to follow through on its promises to the Columbia and West Harlem community, divest from the NYPD, reimagine public safety’s role on campus, remove the criminal history box from Columbia’s application, and hire more Black faculty members. Following in the footsteps of Columbia Divest for Climate Justice’s 2016 advocacy for fossil fuel divestment, MAD members will spend the fall garnering support from student groups across campus and pushing their demands forward.
Faced with what might seem like insurmountable institutional barriers, Anjali remains a deeply optimistic activist. With the charisma of a political organizer and the analytical acuity of a physicist, she describes her vision for Columbia with a clarity and confidence that makes you pause, listen, process, then believe in her ability to make it happen. She tells me that this is a “huge time of change” in the country. As she enters her senior year, I know she means to change Columbia, too.