Janet Blume, deputy dean of the faculty, first met Meenakshi Narain while working together in Barus and Holley after Narain’s arrival at the University in 2007.
Narain “was at the top of her game as a researcher, she was dedicated to students and mentoring people from underrepresented backgrounds. She did all of those things in a really thoughtful way,” Blume recalled.
Narain, who served as chair of the University’s physics department, passed away Jan. 1 at age 58, leaving an enduring legacy of mentorship and advocacy at the University. Students, colleagues and family remembered Narain as a compassionate instructor and researcher, as well as a champion for diversity and inclusion in STEM at a memorial Jan. 7 and through a digital message board set up for friends to post tributes in her memory.
She was “amazing because she could do everything,” Blume said.
In the months following her passing, The Herald spoke with several of Narain’s former students, colleagues and family members about her lasting impact at University and beyond.
Dedicated to ‘integrity and achievement’
Professor of Physics Gang Xiao, who is the current interim department chair and also served as chair before Narain, described Narain as a devoted mentor to her students — “one of the most productive researchers” in the physics department and “a brilliant scientist.”
Professor of Physics Ulrich Heintz, Narain’s husband, remembered her as “compassionate … with a high standard for integrity and achievement.” Heintz met Narain when the two attended graduate school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, during which the two married.
Beginning in 1998, Narain worked at Boston University, where she advocated for improving gender equity in STEM by mentoring women scientists in high school, according to Heintz.
In both her family and professional life, Narain was known as “a very effective organizer,” Heintz said.
Family members remember Narain’s penchant for hosting large Thanksgiving celebrations with upward of 40 guests at her home, Heintz added. She enjoyed regularly hosting parties with friends and even inviting over her research group.
At the University, Narain “organized the first in-person meeting of the (Department of Physics) since the pandemic started” after being appointed as chair in July 2022, Heintz said. She also organized the Big Bang Science Fair, hosted at WaterFire Providence, which brought together scientists and artists to expose attendees of all ages to STEM.
Narain also served as chair of the U.S. collaboration for the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment, one of two major experiments at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research. In the role, Narain fought against “the old buddy network, driven by musical chairs between the same people serving as leaders,” Heintz said. She promoted meritocracy among the leadership, advocating for the promotion of younger scientists.
“She tried to influence the system to be more equitable and provide more opportunities across the board,” Heintz said.
Narain’s ‘unwavering commitment’ to professorship
Blume said that one of Narain’s most remarkable qualities was her intentionality as an educator.
“She didn’t just do physics and do teaching,” Blume said. “She studied how to do physics, studied how to do teaching and studied how people interact with one another.”
As chair of the department, Narain “was thoughtful and studied organization and how to lead effectively,” Blume said. “I’m a couple of years older than (her), yet I looked up to her … as a role model (for) myself.”
Among Narain’s many professional accomplishments, she was particularly proud of her advocacy efforts for increased diversity and inclusion in physics, Blume said.
When Narain was appointed as department chair, she asked Blume if there had ever been a woman in the position before. Upon learning that she was the first, Narain “was so proud,” Blume said. “And I was proud, too.”
Daniel Li GS, one of Narain’s graduate students, remembered her as a compassionate and ambitious mentor. Narain “told me to not be so hesitant” before trying new research approaches, Li said. “She had a really good perception of students’ weaknesses and strengths, and then pushed them to be more well rounded.”
Li recalled the reputation of Narain’s lab and her rigor in preparing her students. “If you graduated from (her) group, you knew that you were qualified to have ‘doctor’ in your title,” Li said.
Xiao said that Narain “was known for her unwavering commitment to” graduate and masters students, as well as undergraduate concentrators.
“She really (cared) about every single one of them.”
Xiao recalled one year when Narain’s son was set to receive his doctorate from Cornell on the same day as the department’s commencement. Narain traveled to Ithaca and back to Providence the same day to participate in commencement festivities.
Narain was both a “wonderful mother and also a fantastic professor to our students,” Xiao said.
“I was always struck by Meenakshi’s attention to detail and dedication to her work,” he added. “She asked me a lot of questions about how the department operates and which areas we can (improve). She just wanted to learn as much as possible.”
Narain was “a force of nature in promoting women and underrepresented minorities and building STEM for all,” Xiao said. “She will be deeply missed by all of us.”
“It’s been a difficult January for the physics community at Brown,” he added. “We just need to continue her visionary work.”
Neil Mehta is a University News section editor and design chief at The Herald. They study public health and statistics at Brown. Outside the office, you can find Neil baking and playing Tetris.