Explorer of the universe, Vandana Singh, encourages global optimism
By Emily Rosenberg
As a young girl, Vandana Singh said she dreamed of being an explorer and traveling the world.
“I wanted to live with other species because non-humans really fascinated me. I was a shy kid,” she said.
While Singh’s official job title is not “explorer,” she does explore the depth of the world as she studies and presents on the global climate crisis and travels the Universe via a pen through her creative works of speculative fiction.
In 2023, Singh, who describes herself as an “earthling” on the “About” page of her website, continues to build an impactful career as a physics and environment professor in the FSU Environment, Society, and Sustainability Department and an author.
After earning her Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics at Louisiana State University, Singh said she planned to move back to her home in New Delhi, India, where she lived the first 20 years of her life.
But “life had other plans,” she said.
In 2003, Singh was hired as a visiting lecturer for the then Department of Physics at Framingham State College, which she described at the time as a “sleepier, quieter place.”
Singh now teaches a course she designed on climate justice for Rams 101, a program which was implemented recently into the curriculum to acclimate first-year students to college life. In the course, she teaches students about the crisis through a case study she built when she traveled to the North Slope of Arctic Alaska and interviewed native people and scientists.
She said she first became interested in taking her climate research to the next level after an event in 2007 in which she and a group led by English Professor Lisa Eck and Sociology Professor Virginia Rutter organized to raise awareness.
At the event, nearly 500 people gathered to watch movies and have discussions about the issue, she said. Singh added growing up in India and witnessing rural feminist environmental movements, she always took an interest in the environment. “That was a deep influence throughout my life, so it was like coming back to myself in a way to figure out how climate change was affecting the biosphere and humankind.”
She began to teach the science of climate change in her physics courses after learning the basics in an online course.
However, she soon realized that to teach climate change, she needed to learn about the interdisciplinary aspects such as justice issues and how economic and power systems were “entangled with the biophysical.”
Though she described what she learns about the climate crisis as “depressing,” and said it is easy to feel as though there is nothing beyond despair, she said she finds optimism in the courage of marginalized people.
Four years ago, Singh said she had a conversation with a woman in India who helped to regenerate a forest which had been destroyed for development. Singh said the people who have relied on the forest for millennia are being “displaced or impoverished.”
She said 20 years ago, the woman led a group to protect, nurture, replenish, and bring the remaining forest back to life.
“These are women with no formal education. They never took a course in ecology. Most of them can’t read and they regrew a forest and the microclimate has changed in the region.”
Singh said she is also inspired by “the courage and the clarity with which young people see through things.”
At a TED Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2021, Singh said she’d witnessed a walkout to protest the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell. When the CEO was invited on stage, a group called him out in a dramatic intervention.
“It was the most ‘telling truth to power’ moment I’d witnessed in a long time,” she added.
While Singh took 10 years off from academia to help raise her family before coming to Framingham State, she started honing her writing skills and becoming curious about the publication process.
“During that time, my brain wanted to have something to work on intellectually interesting. So somehow my concerns about human beings and nature and, of course, my deep interest in science kind of came together, and I started to write science fiction,” she said.
Having written her first poem at 5 years old, Singh writes in both her native language Hindi and in English. She said being surrounded by English now, she mainly writes in English, but writes in Hindi whenever she finds a chance.
Singh described speculative fiction as the cross section between fantasy and science fiction, saying science fiction is not always about technology, but about social arrangements as well. She added, “It's about asking a very revolutionary question which is, ‘What if things were different?’”
For example, she said with an issue such as right-wing governments, which undermine civil rights, in a speculative fiction piece, she would imagine a future where governments outsource governing to corporations.
“In order to understand reality, we need something larger than reality,” Singh said. “And that's why I love speculative fiction because it's larger than reality. It's almost like you can hold reality within it.”
Singh said Ursula K. Le Guin is her favorite American speculative fiction writer. Le Guin also wrote a cover blurb for Singh’s second book “Younguncle in the Himalayas.”
Singh has five published books: “Younguncle Comes to Town,” “Younguncle in the Himalayas,” “Ambiguity Machines,” “The Woman Who Thought She Was the World,” and “Utopias of the Third Kind,” as well as many published short stories.
Her most recent work is a collaboration with Arizona State University for the Climate Imagination Fellowship.
She said in the story she wrote with the fellowship, she tried to imagine how “newly minted” billionaires view the climate crisis as a power play to ensure they still control the stakes compared to how “so-called ordinary people” who are not isolated from the crisis interact with it.
She said her work with the Climate Imagination Fellowship will be published later this year, and is one of the stories she loved writing the most because she enjoyed researching the psychology of billionaires and aspects of the future such as animals and ecosystems being granted legal personhood.
Larry McKenna, chair of the Environment, Society, and Sustainability Department, said Singh is highly “intimidating” to work with because on the outside she is reserved and quiet, “but hidden below that nice exterior is amazingly intense intellect fueled by passion to improve the world.”
He added Singh is remarkable because she takes an interdisciplinary approach to all of her teaching, bringing aspects of her love for writing, climate studies, and physics expertise to create a “wild tapestry of a class that I could never do because I do not have the wealth of vision that she has to think globally about a problem.”
McKenna said Singh’s work is well known nationally and perhaps internationally in the scholarly community. He shared while at a convention in Falmouth, he described Singh’s professorship without using her name, and a person at the convention immediately recognized her because they use her books in their classes.
Pointing to a black diagram drawn with a temporary marker on the floor of a classroom, Singh explained that her favorite part of teaching is using stories and unique techniques to help students understand and love physics.
“I love to awaken their curiosity,” she said.
Raffi Elkhoury, a junior biochemistry major taking her Physics II course, said Singh is unlike any professor he has had before as she is incredibly “student focused.
“She cares about what everybody individually is trying to do to get to their goal,” he said.
Singh said she particularly loves to awaken the potential of those who have been let down by society through broken school systems and feel as if they are incapable of understanding science and math.
“I really feel for young people because we've made a very harsh world for young people to grow up in,” she said. “And so young people come in not always having confidence in their own abilities. And so one of my greatest pleasures is to help restore that.”