UC San Diego visiting professor follows in late astronomer’s footsteps

Smitha Vishveshwara
Smitha Vishveshwara

Walking to school as a child, UC San Diego visiting professor Smitha Vishveshwara asked her father, a black hole physicist, what he did for a living.

“He’d say, ‘Oh, I show that you can’t really kick a black hole.’ He’d be very playful,” said Vishveshwara, who lives in Solana Beach. “What he really meant was that he showed that black holes were stable entities.”

Through her father’s work, she learned about Margaret Burbidge, an influential astronomer, astrophysicist and the first director of UC San Diego’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences. Coming full circle, Vishveshwara now serves as the university’s Margaret Burbidge visiting professor of physics.

“I really felt very privileged to be able to get this position,” said Vishveshwara, whose career was also influenced by her mother, a biophysicist.

Burbidge, a U.K. native who died in April at age 100, “helped popularize the notion that humans are composed of stardust,” read an obituary in the Union-Tribune. Among her notable achievements, she coauthored a groundbreaking 1957 paper on the origin of chemical elements.

“I just feel very fortunate to have this connection and have her as this incredible scientist to look up to,” Vishveshwara said.

Vishveshwara is a condensed matter theorist in the physics department at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Born in Pittsburgh, she moved to India with her parents before her second birthday. At 17, she returned to the U.S. to pursue a bachelor’s degree in physics at Cornell University, then completed her Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara in 2002.

At UC San Diego, Vishveshwara conducts quantum research. She continues to make progress despite the COVID-19 crisis, which has led to shelter-in-place guidelines and working remotely.

“Luckily with Zoom and technology these days, we’re able to do a lot,” she said of her work.

With an 8-year-old son who attends Solana Vista Elementary School, Vishveshwara is also among the many parents helping their children adjust to distance learning.

“I think there are clever ways in which you can evoke curiosity and love for STEM and there could be an opportunity here,” Vishveshwara said of adapting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses to online learning.

Vishveshwara is an advocate of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math), which uses the arts to help convey the key principles of physics. Her grandfather was a playwright. She is also an American Physical Society fellow. In that role, she’s working with her mother, who lives in India, on research into protein structure analysis that could produce some insights into developing a coronavirus treatment or vaccine.

She said living in Solana Beach is “still a dream,” even though the COVID-19 crisis has prevented many of the outdoor activities that residents of the beachside city typically enjoy.

“COVID-19 really changed that, but even to be able to walk out and see the ocean and see the sunset is tremendous,” she said.