Passages: Professor of Physics Meenakshi Narain

A renowned physicist who collaborated with researchers globally and mentored young scientists exploring physics careers, Narain spent 15 years on the Brown faculty and was the first woman to chair the physics department.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Meenakshi Narain, an accomplished high-energy experimentalist and a longtime professor of physics at Brown University, died on Sunday, Jan. 1, at age 58. Narain joined Brown’s Department of Physics faculty in 2007 and had served as department chair since July 2022 — the first woman to hold that role in the department’s history.

A prominent physicist who collaborated with researchers across the globe, Narain was deeply involved with the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator at CERN in Switzerland, as well as the DØ experiment at Fermilab, the U.S. Department of Energy’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory.

Narain conducted pioneering research on the Higgs Boson, which upon its discovery in 2012 was the final missing piece in the Standard Model of particle physics. An author on more than 850 peer-reviewed studies in leading physics journals, she spearheaded a multidisciplinary effort to bring advanced quantum sensing and quantum computing techniques to high-energy physics, and was instrumental in discovering the top quark, the heaviest fundamental particle, in 1995.

Vesna Mitrovic, a professor of physics and engineering at Brown, said that much of Narain’s success stemmed from the courage to tackle complex questions in physics: “Often, it’s easy to find a million reasons why you shouldn’t take on a particular challenge — it’s too difficult, or it will take too much time,” Mitrovic said. “This was not Meenakshi. She’d say: ‘What is it that we could do better? Let’s jump on it.”

Mitrovic said that Narain brought a unique mix of kindness, generosity and a drive for excellence and professionalism. She was demanding, Mitrovic said, but would support her students and faculty colleagues in meaningful and concrete ways.

“She was a truly special, amazing friend to me,” Mitrovic said. “What I really appreciated was that in the physics department, we worked as professional colleagues and even when we didn’t agree, she was amazingly professional. For someone to be that warm of a friend and human outside of the department, yet when it comes to work to be so incredibly ethical and professional, that’s unique. This is what made Meenakshi so successful.”

Meenakshi Narain
Narain was deeply involved with the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator at CERN in Switzerland, as well as the DØ experiment at Fermilab, the U.S. Department of Energy’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory.

In an “In Memoriam” tribute published by Fermilab, the United States leadership team on the CMS experiment noted that Narain’s “impact on CMS has been immeasurable and her many contributions have been critical to the success of the collaboration.” Narain had served as a member of the CMS Management Board as the U.S. regional representative, chair of the U.S. CMS Collaboration, and a leader of the CMS group from Brown. She was also a founding chair of the CMS Diversity Office and a leader of the CMS Women’s Forum.

Narain was a strong and persistent advocate for diversity and inclusion in physics at Brown and well beyond. She served as a member of the CMS Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion and engaged in STEM outreach activities to encourage the participation of young women in science. She organized multiple Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Brown, and was a mentor and faculty advisor of the Department of Physics’ Women in Science and Engineering group.

Janet Blume, deputy provost and an associate professor of engineering, worked with Narain since her arrival at Brown — first as fellow women physical sciences faculty in the University’s Barus and Holley building.

“Meenakshi was a strong voice for women and underrepresented minorities in physics and was committed to making it a field that is free of barriers,” Blume said. “She worked toward that goal as tirelessly as she did her amazing research program. She showed incredible generosity in mentoring individual physicists at all levels, providing encouragement, tutelage and an exemplary role model. I know there are countless physicists who point to Meenakshi as the person to whom they owe their success.”

Narain was also the organizer and founder of the Big Bang Science Fair at WaterFire Providence, a public outreach event that brought hands-on science experiences to local kids and community members.

“Meenakshi had the inner strength and focus to develop a wide network of people who would work together, excited by her vision, to make possible some major accomplishment,” said Brown Professor Emeritus of Physics David Cutts, a longtime colleague. “An example is the Big Bang Science Fair at WaterFire, which pulled together contributions from the sciences and arts to spectacular success. To see what one could do through one’s will was inspiring not only to those she mentored, but also to many others whom she touched.”

Professor of Physics Ian Dell’Antonio said that as an undergraduate advisor, he’s met many students who Narain mentored: “It’s remarkable how many students would say that they would not have succeeded in physics except for her mentorship,” he said. “Meenakshi had this great ability to make people feel heard and valued. She would take students in their first or second year under her wing and make sure they got the encouragement, advice — and sometimes talking to — they needed to succeed. Her students are fiercely devoted to her.”

Dell’Antonio added that Narain worked ceaselessly to promote physics well beyond the academic community.

“She was also constantly looking for ways to promote other public-facing aspects of physics,” he said. “In particular, she was a huge supporter of Ladd Observatory and its public engagement, and was constantly pushing me and the other astronomers to be more visible.”

Blume noted that Narain took on the role of chair of the Department of Physics this year, despite existing responsibilities that included research, leadership in worldwide physics communities, and a devotion to teaching and mentoring. In her short time as department chair, Narain was exceptional, Blume said.

“Being chair of any department is a challenge, but it is an especially complex role in a department like physics, with its ambitious and successful research agenda, sophisticated laboratories, high levels of external funding, multiple degree programs, and wide ranges of courses,” Blume said. “Meenakshi welcomed the challenge — even while facing health challenges — and took a calm, methodical and thoughtful approach. Any chair has to work with department faculty, staff and students, but also the University administration. Meenakshi managed to be an outstanding partner to all. She was one of a kind and will be terribly missed.”

Narain’s work earned her a wide array of accolades throughout her career. In 2000, she received both an Outstanding Junior Investigator Award from the U.S. Department of Energy and a National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award. In 2007, she was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society. And in 2012, she was elected a fellow of the LHC Physics Center at Fermilab. Recently, Narain served on the Department of Energy’s High Energy Physics Advisory Panel, and she was just chosen as a member of the panel’s P5 subpanel, which will advise the U.S. government on priorities for the field.

Narain earned a bachelor of science from Gorakhpur University in India; a master of science in physics from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, India, which recently awarded her a distinguished alumna award; and a Ph.D. in physics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Narain is survived by her husband — Ulrich Heintz, a fellow professor of physics at Brown — and sons Aneesh and Anand Heintz.

This story includes reporting from a Department of Physics tribute to Meenakshi Narain, which is available in full on the department’s website.