MISCELLANEA IN CONTEXT
Iris Monica Vargas loves books, words, cells, bugs, galaxies and planets, and she has always been equally enchanted by literature as by science. This duality is part of who she is today, and always a blessing.
In 2019 Vargas received a nod as “Mujer con Visión,” A Woman with A Vision, by the magazine of the same name. And in 2020 (just before the pandemia stroke), she was one of nine women –amongst lawyers, scholars, painters, educators, musicians, and Puerto Rico Hall-of-Fame-athletes– who received the Central Carmen Award (Premio Central Carmen) in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, for “representing with dignity the spirit of Women of the 21st Century.”
In 2020, as well, Vargas received a PEN Puerto Rico International Award for El libro azul, her second work of poetry, a piece that contemplates/ponders about the mystery at the intersection between creativity and theories about the phenomenon of consciousness.
THE NURTURE OF MIND
Born in Puerto Rico, she grew up in Barrio Bajuras (the home of little girls and little boys full of promise and potential), a small, economically disadvantaged, rural area in the beautiful mountains of Vega Alta, above the Cibuco river, and approximately fifty minutes from San Juan, the capital of the Island.
Having grown up surrounded my dirt, huge flying cockroaches, salamanders, birds, passion fruit and avocado – as well as a neighbor with a monkey as a pet – gave Vargas a fresh perspective of the world apparent in her work. Vega Alta was, in fact, the place where Vargas’ love for writing and for science was born with the encouragement of Sr. Serapio Laureano, Sra. Chinea, Sra. Molina, Sr. Díaz, Sr. Agustín Flores, Sra. Lucila Rivera, among other amazing teachers and mentors.
As a child, Mónica read voraciously. Her parents, non-English speakers with little economic resources, provided the family, nonetheless, with endless energy, kindness and love, and from an early age exposed Vargas to the English language through books that were donated to them by people who knew about their passion for reading and their mission to teach their children more than one language. (Vargas had an aunt who brought her boxes filled with books, some broken, some missing a few pages, that the public school where she worked had discarded.
A HYBRID STORY
Throughout her life, science and literature have remained intertwined. Today, though no longer a practicing physicist, she still loves the field and her reading interests are wide: from cosmology, to infectious diseases (the mystery and wonder of bacteria, viruses —bugs of all kinds! — and how they interact with us) and space medicine (a really old love), as well as the history of medicine in society. In literature, Iris Monica is interested in – and also practices – poetry, essays and the genre of short stories.
A romantic at heart, as well as a book nerd, legend has it, Vargas would spend many a high school lunch recess inside of the school’s library, in the company of her best friend, Xiomi, reading either a science book or Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and Puerto Rican Julia de Burgos, tirelessly.
<<It also makes me think about the importance of representation. I am a simple person with weaknesses and strengths. I have a limited bag of tools, but I work hard to expand these tools, to address my weaknesses, and I work hard with what I have in order, always, to create new things and find ways to contribute. And whether I want it or not, whether I am aware of it or not, I am always representing my community, and my country, and the many possibilities we hold as people, no matter who we are, what last name we inherited, or where we come from. >>
THESE ARE NOT NAMES, BUT PEOPLE WHO HAVE ALLOWED ME TO GROW
Iris Mónica Vargas completed a double bachelor’s degree in Biology and Physics, and a master’s degree in Physics (Universidad de Puerto Rico). As part of her graduate work in Physics, she studied the properties of diamond as the material to make thin film detectors that would be sensitive to ultraviolet light to be used in astronomy applications. A fun, hands-on project, it allowed her not only the opportunity to contribute in the construction and assembly of the machine to synthesize diamond (technically referred to as a Chemical Vapor Deposition system) but also the opportunity to design, fabricate and characterize the detector itself as a final product. Working under the tutelage of Dr. Gerardo Morell and Dr. Brad Weiner taught Vargas to be both organized and systematic in her approach to solving a problem —whatever the problem might be— as well as courageous and daring in her solution.
At the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Iris Mónica studied nearby elliptical galaxies, the environment around their nucleus, and the existence of the mysterious ultra-luminous X-ray creatures (ULX’s) in these stellar habitats. She worked with Dr. Christine Jones, a legend in the astrophysics community and one of the strongest women Vargas has ever admired. At MIT, she explored the force of gravity and the effects of its continuum (from microgravity to hypergravity) on beings as small as the Medaka fish and as big as humans, from a literary science-writing perspective.
In 2005, Iris Mónica met seasoned Spanish writer and editor Francisco Vacas with whom she ran a bimonthly column at El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s main newspaper. This was Vargas’ first experience writing professionally and for a general audience on topics related to science. With Francisco as her mentor and editor, the column, called “Ciencia Boricua”, garnered the Best New Column of the Year Award in 2006. For Vargas, the experience of working side by side with an editor of Francisco Vacas’ caliber was, “undoubtedly, life changing.”
Vargas worked as a staff writer at Harvard Science | The Harvard Gazette under the supervision of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist B.D. Colen (an extraordinary mentor and friend). She completed a second master’s degree, this time in Science Writing, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – an achievement which has been a source of pride for Vargas given that her mother tongue is Spanish, and not English, and that her economical condition while growing up was never one that allowed for private schools, or English tutors and, instead, consisted of really hard-working parents who at one point had but two hundred dollars in their account and a lot of grit, a lot of passion for giving their kids a better quality of life. Amongst hundreds of applicants, Vargas was one of only eight individuals chosen by the MIT program, and was given a full scholarship award to undergo her studies.
At the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Vargas studied journalism with wonderful, award winning writer/journalist Magaly Garcia Ramis (Felices días, tío Sergio). At MIT , Vargas formalized her study of writing and literature under the tutelage of Russ Rymer (Genie, Paris Twilight), the amazing Marcia Bartusiak (The Day We Found The Universe), Robert Kanigel (On An Irish Island), Tom Levenson (Einstein in Berlin), and Alan Lightman (Einstein’s Dreams, Mr. G), a beloved mentor. She also studied fiction writing with Junot Díaz (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his first novel “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao“, “This is How You Lose Her”), an incredibly fascinating person and wonderful teacher.
While at MIT, Vargas submitted her poetry work as part of an application to be a part of the poetry class at the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University, and was granted a place amongst dozens of applicants (from Harvard and MIT) to study poetry under the guidance of Academy of American Poets award winner and gifted, kind, wonderful teacher/poet/artist Peter Richards (“Nude Siren”, “Helsinski”).
Vargas was Co-creator and Developer of the MIT MOSTEC Science Writing Course of which she was Lead Instructor from 2014-2016, and was Instructor for five years.
During the summer of 2017, Vargas was selected to be part of the Sherwin B. Nuland Summer Institute for Bioethics is at Yale University. The experience of being surrounded by students of different nationalities, thinking together without boundaries and inhibitions, about the nature of ethical quandaries was exhilarating for Vargas.
<<Being at MIT has been one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had. First of all, I am a girl from a barrio. Not many people expected someone like me to get into that place (and quite a few laughed and actually told me I wouldn’t be able to). Yes. that happened. And second: MIT an environment filled with creativity and a passion for learning that is contagious. It allowed me to see things I could have never imagined seeing, and to meet people who believe that everything and anything is possible, and that you are part of that equation, you can make things possible. It’s a place where people believe in you, they are proud to have you as a student and they tell you as much. I felt that they were proud of us all. We were always encouraged to express our ideas, and our ideas were welcomed —even those that contradicted the professors or administration. That’s how places like MIT thrive. They don’t silence their students: they welcome their contributions. Being there is akin to being constantly in a brainstorm session. It’s absolutely exciting.” —I.M.V.
Four people exist that Vargas will forever be grateful to: nurturing, kind, kind, amazing writer Carlos Esteban Cana, writer/visionary Pilar Vélez, lovely poets Javier Ávila and Noel Luna. All helped Vargas see that whatever she is (what YOU are, dear Reader) is already enough—That is definitely not a trivial lesson to internalize.
Digressions she never gets to have anywhere else
<<I’m the eternal underdog–I never give up. I have finally learned to appreciate the way my mind works: I love connections across fields and disciplines, attempting to think outside the box. I love philosophy and science, as much as I love literature. I love thinking. Taking the time to ponder about something. I used to think I didn’t know where this intense internal fire came from, but I do. I come from a strong family who was resourceful and extremely creative, creating as many opportunities as they could despite very limited resources, to help me grow and thrive. From them, from the example of their persistence, their fierce independence, I learned to be creative, to be resourceful, to be strong, to know it is up to me to search for and/or create opportunities for myself to keep on growing. Our lives, yours and mine, may be small but we always make a difference. I know that to be true. Most of the people who inspire us, we’ve never even met –most are “normal” people whose work we come across by chance, but whose accomplishments have made us aware that we, too, can get back up and try again something we hold dear in our hearts and brains, as a worthy goal, and as true to our most cherished values. >>
<<We know the world would never work without this appetite for Life we share, without this act of imagining the possibilities beyond what is there right now, beyond that which already exists. We know that.>> —Iris Monica Vargas
<<Some days I feel confident, and I can tell myself “you’re talented.” Other days, I struggle a lot. What helps me on those days when I’m struggling is to remember my specific tools —for instance, an undying passion for poetry, writing and literature, and a relentless passion for Medicine, learning and science in general. (Science and Literature: YES!) I am also a hard worker. I show up early. I am an expert at (and this one took lots of practice ) getting up right away after I fall down no matter the amount of scratches I receive; no matter how long it takes, I get the work done. I do not, ever, give up. I am also a dreamer. Most important of all, I have realized, how important it is in my experience, to notice and to be aware of all the beauty there is around me. More and more I am understating how all that beauty fuels the joy and passion I can feel when I’m working or studying, or doing anything I mean to do. Experience and practice at this is allowing me to say that happiness is actually right here. It really is, no matter what happens. At all. // I am very clear one cannot operate without finding that joy in what one is doing, without being aware of that unconditional beauty, and operating with purpose.>>
<<I think we live in a world where it would seem as though achievements —at home, at work, at school— simply “happened” through some magical power, and that can be misleading and disheartening. For everything you want to achieve, in my opinion, there are three requirements: to practice feeling as grateful and happy as you can unconditionally, then to apply a healthy dose of dreaming and imagining about what you want to do, and finally, to put in the necessary work. We regard the final product as the only thing there is –flat, unidimensional. It is as though we thought we took away from the beauty and magic of the moon by observing it with a telescope and learning about its seas. I don’t think we do. I know we do not. The thing is, and this I didn’t use to understand before: that thing we refer to as “magic” is about both the work that went into the achievement and, most importantly, finding the thought that allows you to recognize the tools you already have, understanding that you are okay right now, and that where you are is great. The “magic,” so to speak, is to find that thought, or a series of them, that allows you to enjoy what you’re doing while you are doing it. That is what will carry you forward. It is not a particular destination or time of arrival, it is, instead, the road traveled, the happiness during the quest, the curiosity throughout it all, the anticipation of finding that place, the details you collect along the way, the experience of trying, of doing, the interesting people you meet and converse with—-happiness is The journey. Life already started. It’s happening right now. There’s both nothing else to it, and a lot about it. Go find beauty wherever you are and know that the little cheesy phrase many people utter, “that what you are is enough,” has all the truth in it. >>—-Iris Mónica Vargas (2021)
<<To me, every single victory, no matter how small, to most of us in the world, has been preceded by hard work and dedication, and many times, by sacrifice as well, and by many moments —a multitude of them, in fact —when all we feel is fear and uncertainty, and all we dare to see is the reality of what is, instead of the vision of what can be. (Now I know, by the way, that whenever you feel like that, all you have to do is focus not on the problem itself but on the solution. Focus on feeling well, on noticing what is working out for you. Focusing on that gives you the calmness you need to continue creating.) I do think that understanding or being aware that other people have gone through these less than glamorous, polished and perfect experiences is important both to preserve one’s own sanity as well as to be prepared to put in the amount of work –and patience– that a worthy goal deserves. Yes: hard work, dedication, and most of all, fierce, even rebellious, imagination about how things can be. Lately I’ve been thinking perhaps this, too —this work, but especially this fierce imagination, the genuine experience of enjoying what you do — is actually the real definition of being lucky.>>
<<Work has acquired a little bit of a bad reputation these days, I know, but work can be fun and is absolutely noble, in my opinion. The journey to a goal is really what is fun about pursuing something. (Sometimes that’s hard to remember –I know it well…) Work does not need to be a chore, though. It can be a source of fun, pleasure, experience, knowledge and pride. To me, that hard work we put into whatever our heart dreams of accomplishing is what will make us feel proud of ourselves at the end of the day, when the goal is achieved. That work that allowed you to achieve whatever it was you dreamt of is what makes your life worthy and worth it. It’s also, I think, what makes you who you are, and who you will be. And that’s why I think it’s important for me to say this, for anyone who cares to read.” —Iris Mónica Vargas
“Mi prioridad como escritora, al menos eso que intento lograr, va de la mano con lo que intento como ser humano: Quiero entender de dónde vengo, y, simultáneamente, ansío derivar sentido de lo que hago en el mundo, del impacto de mi presencia como colaboradora en conjunto a otros seres humanos y a otras especies. Me interesa la pregunta de mi identidad no sólo con respecto a mi entorno inmediato, mi país de origen, sino también con respecto al colectivo humano, como parte de la comunidad global. “
“My priority as a writer goes hand in hand with my priority as a human being: I want to understand where I come from, but I want to understand, just as much, what I am doing in the world, what the impact is of my presence here as a collaborator among other species. I am interested in the question of identity not only inside my immediate surroundings, my country of origin, but also, and above all, the question about my identity as a human being, as part of a greater community in the world.”
“Como persona nacida y criada en Puerto Rico, quisiera entender el modo en el que yo, informada sobre el contexto histórico que me ha producido y en conjunto a ello, soy capaz de integrarme al mundo, a esa idea de lo universal, o bien como reto a eso que llamamos universal. Creo que lo que podemos considerar como identidades independientes puedenhablarse una a la otra de manera natural, enriqueciendo el resultado de lo que uno podría lograr si fuera a considerarles de manera independiente.”
“As a person born in Puerto Rico, I want to understand how I, informed by my place of origin and by the historical context that has produced me, and in conjunction with it, I can find a place inside the world at large, into the idea of or challenging what is universal. I think what we can consider independent identities can really speak with each other organically, enriching the result of what one could accomplish if one were to regard them completely separate or independent of each other.”
The Story of How She Learned The Other Language
Iris Mónica was first exposed to the English language through books that were donated to her by an aunt who collected damaged, discarded books. She learned to write in English through a thirteen-year long correspondence with a pen pal from San Francisco, California, whose name was Shane Wilson, to whom she wrote letters every week. (Unfortunately, Vargas never had the chance to meet him). Even though neither of her parents spoke English, and despite the fact that Vargas father was a strong and active advocate for the independence of Puerto Rico, Vargas’ parents always encouraged their children to learn the foreign language, “both because of Puerto Rico’s complex political and economical relationship with the United States – the United States occupied Puerto Rico in 1898 and the island is still, functionally, a colony of the U.S.– and because they believed that mastering the English language was their children’s ticket out of their condition of poverty inside their barrio, and into a world beyond the country’s geographical and cultural boundaries,” Vargas has said. “My parents thought engaging with the rest of the world, not just the United States but the world at large, was a really important experience. And because economically they couldn’t give us trips around the world or fancy prep school opportunities, they did all they could to teach us English, hoping it would serve us as the foundation from which to move forward.”
The Challenge of Sharing One’s Work
<<Atrévete a entablar conversaciones con otras personas, aunque no las conozcas. Atrévete a preguntarles su nombre y decirles el tuyo. Atrévete a escuchar atentamente sobre sus proyectos, y a hablarles de los tuyos con emoción, con honestidad. Atrévete a mencionarles aquello con lo que sueñas. Atrévete a preguntarles si puedes colaborar con ellos. Atrévete a mostrar que tienes ganas de trabajar duro, y que no paras de imaginar. No necesariamente te responderán, quizás no te abran la puerta, pero habrás crecido y mucho en ti se sentirá más segur@ de ti mism@, más cómod@ en tu piel. Eso te hará crear con más fuerza.>> —Iris Mónica Vargas
Her work has been featured in several publications nationally and internationally, including a few literary anthologies; science magazines such as Science News, SEED Magazine, Bay State Banner, Harvard Science, Harvard Gazette, Bulletin of Anesthesia History, National Association of Science Writers (NASW); periodicals and literary magazines such as Latin American Literature Today (LALT), Revista Kametsa (Perú), El Nuevo Día (in Puerto Rico), Letralia (in Venezuela), Otro Lunes (Madrid), Trasdemar: Revista de Literaturas Insulares (Canary Islands, Spain), hypébole.es (Spain), Santa Rabia Magazine (Perú), Isla Negra (Lanusei, Italy), Letras Salvajes (Puerto Rico), Nagari Magazine, Poetas del siglo XXI (Spain), El Post Antillano, Revista Poetas y Escritores Miami, Lo-Fi Ardentía, Goldfoundation.org, Revista Fábula (Logroño, Spain), Low-Fi ardentía (New York), El coloquio de los perros (España), Social Medicine/Medicina Social (New York); and blogs such as the now defunct Salon’s Open Salon (where her work gathered an Editor’s Choice), Confesiones (of writer Angelo Negron); and has been featured in Boreales (from award winning writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro), Solo Disparates, Dialogo, Milibrohispano, among others. She is a member of AIPEH, the international association of latino writers and poets, in Miami, Florida, and Mi Libro Hispano. In 2014, Vargas was guest of honor at the Celebración Internacional del Libro Hispano, in Miami.
Listen to this podcast where Vargas reads three of her poems. (Duration: 1 minute)
The Adventure of A First Book
<<Sometimes we feel invisible, be it because of the color of our skin, our background, our country of origin, our sexual preference, our gender, even non-physical (sometimes imagined) things that we have somehow internalized as our own — who knows? There are so many categories, if you think of them, they will overwhelm and immobilize you. There are, I guess, many ways in which one is invisible. I guess we are always invisible to someone, while also unable to see everything —Vexatious categories, unconscious biases. Perhaps we must learn and we must work and we must live as though we were not invisible. At least that is one way, however simplistic it may seem, to take off little by little the invisibility cloak. I think it is precisely the act of living — of experiencing the world but also of creating it, or creating in it– what allows us to see ourselves.>>
<<A great thing about being invisible is that it kind of forces us to see ourselves more intensely. In a way, it gives us the space –and the silence– to understand what we are about: our values –what we stand for– as well as what we want to create. Even if nobody were to expect anything from us (no matter who “they” are for you), it is still okay: this gives us freedom (and freedom is a great thing to have, especially in the endeavor of creating, be it in art or in science). We can explore who we are until we know. We can create over a wider canvas—happily and intensely. We have nothing to lose. (We have nothing to lose.) So even if the exercise doesn’t produce the desired effect of being seen, or the exact result we were hoping for, it will not matter: we will have lived our lives to the fullest and we will have, hopefully, no regrets.>> —Iris Mónica Vargas
La última caricia, Vargas’ first book, is a poetic meditation on the process of dissection of a human body told from the perspectives of both a medical student and the donor who has offered his/her body to science. Originally published in its digital version (Terranova Editores, 2013), it is now available on paperback and can be found on Amazon.com, as well as at local Puerto Rican bookstores such as Librería Mágica (in Río Piedras, PR), El Candil (in Ponce, PR) and Laberinto Viejo (in San Juan, PR). Released in September 13, 2013, Iris Mónica Vargas’ first book, La última caricia, unexpectedly, continuously appeared on Amazon’s Best Seller List in the category of Caribbean and Latin American books – at times ranked as number 1 and 3 – for a year and a week.
Watch Vargas read a poem from the book in this video she filmed and edited in Cambridge, MA.
Her second book, El libro azul, was born December 12, 2018. El libro azul is an exploration of memory, or of the nature of that which we have come to know as mind or consciousness as it gives form to memory in health, in illness and, above all, in the creative process—as an obsession itself, a type of “insanity.” It is about the act of creation as a tool for the machine –The mind? That centaur, half human, half something else one might argue we are? — to explore and decipher what it is. The book won a PEN Puerto Rico International Award (H.M.) in 2020. In both books, La última caricia and El libro azul, Vargas’ poetry interweaves science and poetry through questions used as meditations on the experience of being human and on those concepts or ideas that do not yet have their own vocabulary to allow us to speak of them. In Vargas’ poetry, nothing is ever settled or finite; everything is always an open question, a mystery, an exploration of the imagination.
Vargas has just finished her third book, El día en que dejamos la tierra,” about all our metaphorical earths and the nostalgia —and pain— of leaving them behind.
Watch Vargas read one of her poems, “Despacio, el Universo” in Ireland.
Vargas is currently a medical student, interested not only in the anatomy of medicine as a whole but also in how best to understand what it does, how it can be made to operate for the benefit and healing of people within the context of a society in which we often focus instead on transactions between “clients” and “providers”, “disease” and “treatment.”
“I am interested in the conversation, so to speak, between science/medicine and society —by the latter I mean our communities. I’m interested in the relationship between community and medicine. I think that’s a significant conversation without which medicine (the scientific data supporting it) cannot be as beneficial as it strives to be,” says Vargas.
She is currently the editor of Stethoscopes & Pencils, an online venue dedicated to finding powerful voices and stories connecting literature and medicine through all their possible intersections, in an attempt to understand or think about the human experience in its light as well as in its darkness.
<<I am an advocate of empathy, both in medicine, and in every day life,” Vargas has said, drawing from her experiences as a Spanish-language medical interpreter, “I see empathy not as a “soft” topic but, instead, as a cognitively complex and challenging, dynamic skill, requiring both a sharp eye for detail and an ability to consider people not within categories or “boxes” but individually, assessing specific needs (as in the case of hospital caregiver-patient interactions) of a diversity of people as these evolve in time. The process, I believe, requires not only careful observation and respect of others’ cultural backgrounds and varied beliefs, but also constant introspection by the observer. I regard empathy as something worth thinking about no matter your field of work. I think it can be learned, but to learn it, it needs to be practiced over and over again.>>
Copyright © 2020, Iris Monica Vargas. All Rights Reserved.