Prineha Narang (MS '15, PhD '15) graduated from Caltech with degrees in Applied Physics and will soon join UCLA's faculty in the College of Physical Sciences as the Howard Reiss Chair. Previously, Prineha has worked as a research scholar in the Department of Physics at MIT, and an Environmental Fellow and assistant professor at Harvard, where she led an interdisciplinary group working on topics at the vibrant intersection of computational science, dynamics in molecules and materials, and quantum information science. In addition to her numerous research awards and recognitions, including being named on Forbes Magazine's "30 under 30" list in 2017, Prineha is also an accomplished triathlete and marathon runner.
ENGenuity: How would you describe your professional contributions?
Narang: Recently, UCLA made me an offer as named chair, to lead theory and computation efforts. So, I'm headed back to warm SoCal starting July 1! My group will be across areas of chemistry and physics, and I will have close ties to engineering. Interactions with the broader UCLA community include the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) and the UCLA Center for Quantum Science and Engineering (CQSE).
It's been a whirlwind since I graduated from Caltech, first as a postdoc, then a junior faculty member, and now tenured and promoted entering a new phase of my career. I owe it to the talented set of students and postdocs who have worked with me in my time at Harvard (most of them are actually moving with me to UCLA). I'm grateful to incredible mentors (many at Caltech: Harry Atwater, Bill Goddard, Julia Greer, Gil Refael, the list goes on!) who have inspired me in my academic journey, encouraged me to pursue big, important questions, and continue to challenge me as I enter new fields.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech education influenced you?
Narang: I fell in love with theory and computation at Caltech! Originally, I thought I would be an experimentalist. Caltech (and the Resnick fellowship I held) gave me the freedom to explore areas of research that I knew very little about when I started. My doctoral thesis was co-advised by Professor Harry Atwater and Professor Bill Goddard. I talked with Professor Bill Goddard in chemistry and started to learn theoretical quantum chemistry. Talking with Professor Gil Refael in physics, I began to see the intersection between computational methods (like the ones from Goddard's group) and work in condensed matter theory. Slowly, I put these together to address questions in quantum plasmonics and excited carrier dynamics with Professor Atwater. I think of graduate school as the time where I started to sketch an outline for a painting and over the last years, I've slowly filled it out and added color.
Watching some of my favorite people at Caltech start companies and embark on an entrepreneurial journey has also strongly influenced me. I started a company with a couple of my students (Aliro Quantum) and there's talk of another startup adventure brewing. I owe that confidence of "make-it-happen-one-equation-at-a-time" to my education at Caltech.
Finally, I want to highlight how the phenomenal women at Caltech have shaped my career. Julia Greer and Frances Arnold have been a constant inspiration, as have Caltech alumnae like Jen Dionne.
ENGenuity: What inspired you to become an engineer/scientist/researcher?
Narang: I originally thought I would be a professional runner. Middle school me thought I was reasonably athletic and that I may not be great at much else. A coach eventually pulled me aside and helped me realize that I was fast, but I might be even better at physics.
I have always liked tinkering with things, constructing and deconstructing them, trying to figure out how they work. At the start of my career, I began to think more about the principles that govern this construction. What are the different ways we can construct this thing, and what are the advantages of one method over another? How do we understand some of the physical processes limiting how effective this thing can be? These questions, and our methods of answering them, all come from the same motivation I have always had: to make things better for others and to improve what already exists. In order for people to leave a current paradigm or approach and do something differently, they must see the promise in our new methods. When we think about engineering at the atomic level, it allows us to unlock that promise for others.
ENGenuity: What advice do you have for the next generation of Caltech students?
Narang: Try things you find challenging, even if they are far from "your field" – as a student at Caltech is the best time and place to do it! There is so much support from student-led projects and I think it's really important to take advantage of that support. Another aspect that I emphasize to everyone I meet is to spend time outdoors! Especially in SoCal, there are so many opportunities to do that. It made a big difference in my approach to science, managing stress, making friends outside work, and I would highly recommend making time for it especially when you feel there's so much to do.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Narang: I love mountains and my favorite destination (that I'm going back to soon) is Alaska. Summiting Denali is on top of my outdoors to-do list. I've planned some warmup climbs in the Cascades later this year, working on ice/glacier skills before I tackle Denali. A close second favorite destination is the Cascades. I've done a fair amount of cycling there and I can't wait to head back.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story and why (story, myth, book, film, TV show, etc.)?
All-time favorites are difficult for this! Recently, I've been alternating between two dramatically different books, both relevant to the times. I'm re-reading Richard Lazarus' The Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme Court; I first read it after one of his talks at the Center for the Environment at Harvard and now reading the book a second time, I'm picking up a lot of things I missed initially. On a different note, in preparation for mountain adventures coming up, I just finished Maurice Herzog's Annapurna and I am sufficiently terrified of frostbite and avalanches.
ENGenuity: Is there a project you're most proud of or that you found the most challenging?
Narang: I've been trying to understand transport, particularly hydrodynamic transport in quantum matter. Essentially cases where electrons in materials flow like water. It's a question my student, George Varnavides (soon starting as a Miller Fellow), Adam Jermyn (a Caltech Dabney house alum!) and I have been working on for a few years. We have focused on hydrodynamics in systems beyond graphene—for example, the topological Weyl semimetals. In the process of addressing this question, we created a new computational framework for spatially resolved transport (Spatially Resolved Transport of Non-equilibrium Species -- SpaRTaNS), that we just released. Understanding and controlling flow of carriers in materials has been the subject of active research in wide ranging fields. Our work is starting to provide essential theoretical and computational insight into the long-standing problem of hydrodynamic electron flow.
ENGenuity: What is a typical day like for you?
Narang: I would describe it as controlled chaos! Usually a morning workout, followed by time spent on papers, meetings with group members, and a looming deadline (most likely a proposal). I used to travel a fair bit before the pandemic, conferences, program reviews, etc., and I'm trying to be more selective about travel going forward. Having said that, the last two years have been anomalous for social interactions; before that I would go to lunch with the group or colleagues, and various times a "run-meeting" along the Charles River. I'm really hoping to keep the outdoor meetings and bring back group socials.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Narang: I love to see my students and postdocs succeed. Getting their code running on the big super computers, publishing their first paper, giving their first talk at a big conference, and eventually graduating and getting amazing job offers where they can go and do the same for a new group. My first few students just graduated with their PhDs: George Varnavides, who is starting as a Miller Fellow at Berkeley; and Chris Ciccarino, who is headed to a postdoc at Stanford. I can't wait to see the science they pioneer. Similarly, my postdocs Kade Head-Marsden and Yaxian Wang are starting their own junior faculty journeys. Placing these rockstar women in academic roles is extra special. I've been closely following the work of my former postdocs (like Dominik Juraschek, now on the faculty at Tel Aviv University) who started faculty positions during the pandemic; I talk with them frequently about challenges they are facing, and I am so happy for them every time I see a post highlighting their work. It's this idea of an academic family that I picked up from my thesis and postdoctoral advisors that I hope to continue in my own group.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Narang: The "climate anxiety" has been keeping me up. I work on very fundamental science, approaches that have tremendous promise but are a few years out. So, I ask myself: am I working on the most important thing I could be doing right now? I really enjoy the work we are doing in non-equilibrium dynamics in molecules and materials, and I expect some of it will soon be technologically relevant.
ENGenuity: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Narang: I have an incredible group of researchers that I get to work with in my group, at UCLA, and elsewhere. I love how they challenge me to work on the big hurdles spanning quantum science and energy conversion, hold our work to the highest bar of excellence, and always have something insightful and inspiring to add to what we are doing. I wake up every day feeling privileged to work on tough problems with amazing team members and collaborators across the world.