Sandra Nair

Crown ’20, mathematics and physics

Sandra Nair (Crown ’20, mathematics and physics)

Learning about Sandra Nair’s accomplishments is a humbling experience.

The 21-year-old from Kerala, India, is graduating with a double major in physics and mathematics, she speaks four languages, she has won numerous awards, and—oh, yes, she’s a published author of science-fiction novels.

She also cares deeply about creating a more equitable world.

“An advantage of being in UC Santa Cruz is I got exposed to issues facing minorities in STEM,” she said. “It struck a chord. If we are to survive as a human race as a whole, we need to look for a sustainable lifestyle that provides opportunities for all. We can’t have some parts of humanity be more important than others.”

She is concerned about the lack of representation of women and minorities in STEM, noting that it’s difficult to find them in academia. Even at UC Santa Cruz, there is only one female senior faculty member in the mathematics department, she points out.

“One of my dreams is that I could become a role model for young girls in developing nations,” she said. Since 2016, she has been a member of Milaan, a nonprofit international organization mostly based in India that works toward grassroots-level development of socially marginalized young girls and women by empowering them with education.

Nair said she fell in love with science and math in high school. She remembers spending free time in the library getting “caught up in a vortex of mathematical texts.” While she didn’t understand a word, she knew she wanted to reach the level where she could.

A hero of hers is the late Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal in 2014. Nair also deeply admires Emmy Noether, a Jewish mathematician who was expelled from teaching at a university in Germany by the Nazis, hailed by Einstein as the “most important woman in mathematics” for her immense contributions to modern abstract algebra.

Last year, Nair became the first Templeton-Ramanujan Fellowship recipient from India, receiving a $5,000 grant that she used to do research at Stanford University. She also received the J. W. T. Youngs Memorial Undergraduate Award in Mathematics, and the Ronald H. Ruby Award in Physics.

Recently, she won a Kenneth and Ann Thimann Scholarship for seniors starting grad school with aspirations and research plans in fundamental sciences, and an Honorable Mention for the Coha-Gunderson Prize in Speculative Futures organized by the UC Santa Cruz Humanities Institute.

Nair will be joining the mathematics Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in the fall and hopes to eventually become a mathematician specializing in algebraic geometry. She would like to become a researcher and professor; be involved in teaching; and get more women, people of color, and queer people into math.

“It’s important for visibility,” she said. “I was lucky enough to find incredible mentors who believed in me when I doubted myself. I hope to pass that along.”

She especially expressed her deep gratitude toward her mathematics undergraduate thesis advisor, Professor Junecue Suh, for inspiring and supporting her.