Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Raquel Turner
In early March, I met Yasmeen Asali, CC ’20, in the Astronomy Department’s hub in Pupin. When I arrived at the door, she was deep in conversation with her astrophysics research adviser, who, upon finding out my mission, began to sing Asali’s praises. Yasmeen, she declared, was an invaluable asset to her research team, immensely intelligent, and a longtime friend. As she ushered us toward the door, she paused only to recommend that I reflect that in my article. Laughing, Asali thanked her adviser and walked me away to a nearby lab, where we began our conversation amidst the whirring of heavy machinery.
Witnessing the ease with which Asali navigates her lab, I would have never guessed that astrophysics was a relatively newfound passion for her. The summer before her first year at Columbia, Asali looked at an alphabetized list of Columbia majors in an attempt to find some direction. With astrophysics, she didn’t have to look too far. “I was too lazy to read through all the majors, so I was like, ‘Why don’t I just try that?’” she said, laughing. “Which was dumb. It’s a dumb reason for doing something.” But, sure enough, astrophysics stuck.
These days, Asali speaks about physics with effortless comfort. As she explained her work, she delivered some impromptu lessons that were both unpretentious and accessible to her hopelessly unscientific interlocutor. Though Asali chalks much of her success up to luck, it is clear that her strong internal drive and intensely analytical mind have played essential roles in her many achievements.
Illustration by Kate Steiner
As a researcher, Asali began her career with a chance encounter with a senior member of the astrophysics faculty, who referred her to a friend in urgent need of undergraduate assistants. “Super lucky, super random,” Asali reminisced. By cross-referencing information from FERMI, a space telescope, and LIGO, a gravitational wave detector, the project sought to find coincident gamma ray bursts and gravitational wave events, which could be used to trace the emissions to a single source. Since 2017, Asali has tweaked the research program’s timing diagnostics system, while also serving smaller roles in other projects in the department.
As is the case for most Columbia students, the recent transition to social distancing has forced Asali to pump the brakes on her academic efforts. When, in mid-April, I spoke to her again, we traded the tech-filled rooms of Pupin Floor 12 for our respective bedrooms, hundreds of miles apart. Despite the pause in her campus routine, our conversation made clear her determination to succeed.
Asali took a quick break earlier in April as she adapted to life under social-distancing mandates and debated among grad schools. She feels that taking care of yourself is a goal worth prioritizing amidst a worldwide pandemic. “We’re all trying our best,” she explained. “I haven’t been as productive with research and things like that because I don’t think that that stuff matters as much as staying sane and staying healthy and staying safe.”
Nevertheless, since our conversation in March, Asali had committed to a PhD program at Yale. Though she was forced to make the decision without the aid of campus visits and admissions events, she’s excited about her future as a Bulldog. As the initial shock of social distancing has slowly settled, Asali is back to working on her research remotely, citing it as a “welcome distraction.” She also sent me a link to her very first first-author paper, the recent publication of which has been a “bright spot amid the pandemic.”