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Nuclear (em)Power

By Abby T. Forbes, Contributing Opinion Writer

Starry spirals spinning, glowing globes in orbit, black holes beckoning us to other dimensions — outer space literally magnetic in its appeal. This appeal is what drew Denisse Cordova Carrizales ’23 to study physics. While kindled by the stars, her fascination with physics eventually dug down deeper to the molecular level. Meanwhile, Denisse’s natural instinct for storytelling led her to question what story contemporary nuclear innovations were telling — and how to rewrite that story to make innovation more inclusive.

Growing up in Houston, Denisse cultivated her storytelling voice onstage (and behind the scenes). Offstage, she used her creative voice to teach younger students scriptwriting, acting, and set design. This was in addition to her interest in novels and music. Having spent her formative years in the home of stars like Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion, she developed an intense appreciation for hip hop. With this creative background, Denisse was drawn to physics by its creative spark: the collisions of matter and energy that generate something new.

While Denisse was drawn to physics because of space, after the chaos of being evacuated off campus and adjusting to online school, space was exactly what she needed. She had initially entered Harvard hoping to build toward her Ph.D., but the burnout accompanying Covid-19 led Denisse to question whether that was the right fit. Denisse credits these questions, along with the pandemic’s disruption, with helping her find the courage to take time off from school. Even before the pandemic, Denisse had a desire to take time away. But online school allowed Denisse herself permission to go through with it. She knew she wanted to learn more about industry instead of the more familiar world of academics. So during her gap year, she joined the team of Commonwealth Fusion Systems on a mission to “deliver clean, limitless fusion power to the world.”

All too often, physicists (and others in STEM fields) are seen as faceless figures secluded blankly behind lab coats, running numbers that generate incomprehensible answers to even more incomprehensible questions. Denisse challenges this assumption from practically every angle possible. Her colorful creativity leads her to tackle vibrant problems with sweeping real-world consequences. As a scientist living in an age of climate crisis, Denisse understands how vital it is to implement clean sources of energy. However, she also understands how new energy sources can manifest in environmental racism: the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. In the case of nuclear fusion energy, the risk of environmental racism occurs when large reactors are placed in marginalized communities. Or, the lack of access to energy in some communities versus others.

Expanding access to clean energy is widely agreed to be a positive thing. At the same time, Denisse points out that providing power sources to “where they are needed most” needs to avoid paternalism. During her gap year, she tackled one key factor in preventing environmental racism: community education. Denisse saw how little education was provided to communities in being made home to reactors or other potential environmental hazards. Denisse knew firsthand how education on physics, let alone nuclear fusion reactors, was not widely available in impacted communities. This fueled her inspiration to one day begin to create an educational film on nuclear energy that is accessible and engaging — without any animation experience. After drawing out the frames in her Notes app, Denisse learned enough animation to create the film’s core content. She released the film first in Spanish, then in English, her bilingual background broadening its reach. She eventually attracted the attention of people who could help animate the film at a higher level. The result? A vibrantly educational animated short. One that allows access to clean energy to go hand in hand with access to education about it.

Just as all existing matter is forged into something new again and again, Denisse’s creativity lets her rediscover her love of studying physics by stepping away from it. Her time away from Harvard helped her remember what led her there in the first place. From learning about it to taking it and creating it, space helped Denisse discover and then re-discover what matters.

— Abby T. Forbes ’22 is a Philosophy concentrator in Adams House. Her column “The Trades” appears on alternate Fridays.

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