Schwarzman Scholarship Winner

Portrait of Aditi Nayak

“It still feels surreal,” says Aditi Nayak ’23 when I ask her about the Schwarzman Scholarship she has just won. It’s hard for her to believe that she will spend the 2024–25 academic year at Tsinghua University in Beijing, earning a master’s degree in global affairs. 

But it’s a fact: The Princeton Junction, N.J., resident is one of 150 Schwarzman Scholars chosen this year from among a near-record high of over 4,000 applicants worldwide.

While Nayak majored in neuroscience and math at Amherst, her decision to apply for the scholarship was inspired by the Spring 2023 course “China and the Developing World,” taught by Edward D. Melillo, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History and Environmental Studies, and Kerry Ratigan, associate professor of political science. “It was really cool to see how my interests in science and health played out within the Chinese ecosystem and through politics,” says Nayak. “I’m interested to hear how people in China talk and learn about science.”

She credits her investment in science communication to her upbringing as the eldest daughter of parents who immigrated to the United States from India. “For every ‘first’ I experienced in the American education system, that was the first time anyone in my family was exposed to it. After school, I would share what I learned with my family,” she says. As she gravitated toward studying life sciences, her relatives “would patiently listen and ask questions, specifically about what this meant for their day-to-day lives.” Those early experiences instilled a passion for making science accessible and applicable, particularly for those not afforded the same training. 

This passion led Nayak to found The Amherst STEM Network and start a project with the Global Water Alliance to promote rainwater collection in Kodibettu, India. Science communication “is, at a large scale, what I think I want to do moving forward,” she says. “I’m hoping to use my time in China to decipher which path is best for me.”

Nayak says she “arrived at Amherst interested in science and how we talk about it” and then became involved in scientific research. She spent the summer between her sophomore and junior years at NASA’s Ames Research Center, helping to write proposals for a model system to study the effects of spaceflight on mitochondrial function. Assistant Professor of Biology Sally A. Kim enabled her to continue this work at the College. “I feel grateful to have been able to help set up some opportunities for Amherst students to explore space biology,” Nayak says. “I am fascinated by space biology as a platform to study and expedite research on related conditions on Earth.”

Her year in China will provide an opportunity to understand this emerging field in a new political landscape. “Science is often seen as an absolute truth, but my political science coursework challenged that implicit belief,” she says, noting that Amrita Basu, the Domenic J. Paino 1955 Professor of Political Science, and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Kristin Bumiller, the George Daniel Olds Professor of Economic and Social Institutions, “taught me to consider how I could prioritize marginalized voices when talking about science.” 

For her Schwarzman success, Nayak also thanks Science Center Programs Coordinator Sarah Mattison Buhl, as well as Christine Overstreet and Eric Myers from the Office of Fellowships. Three of Amherst’s previous Schwarzman winners—Melody Dodoo ’21, Elaine Jeon ’17 and Mohamed Ramy ’18—provided essential support and advice.

Nayak looks forward to learning from her fellow Schwarzman Scholars in the 2024–25 cohort, whether they come from around the world or are native to Beijing. “What I take away will largely come from the people I meet,” she says of the program. “And I’m really excited for that.”