Iris Monica Vargas is a freelance writer and physicist who migrated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Puerto Rico, to complete a fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
A lover of books, of words, of cells, galaxies and planets, she has always been equally enchanted by literature as by science. Though the duality has been, at times, a source of conflict, that, too, is part of who she is today.
Born in Puerto Rico, on a stormy dawn, she grew up in Barrio Bajuras, a small, humble, rural area in the 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, flying cockroaches, salamanders, birds, passion fruit and avocado – as well as a neighbor with a monkey as a pet – has given Vargas a fresh perspective of the world apparent in her work.
As a child, Iris Mónica read voraciously. Her parents, non-English speakers with little economic resources, provided the family, nonetheless, with energy, kindness and love, and from an early age exposed Vargas to the English language through books that were given to them by people who knew about their passion for reading and their mission to teach their children more than one language.
Throughout her life, science and literature have remained intertwined. Today, her interests in science span Physics (high energy astrophysics, cosmology), medicine (emergency medicine, space medicine, and the science of resuscitation) as well as the social component of its practice. In literature, Iris Monica is interested in poetry, science writing, and the genres of short stories and essays.
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 a Chemical Vapor Deposition system) but also the opportunity to design, fabricate and characterize the detector as a final product.
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.
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 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 “life changing.”
In 2009, Vargas worked as staff member with Harvard Science, under the supervision of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist B.D. Colen. That same year, 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. Amongst hundreds of applicants, she was 1 of only 8 individuals chosen and was given a full scholarship award to undergo her studies.
Iris Mónica learned to write in English through a thirteen-year long correspondence with a pen pal from San Francisco, California, whose name was Shane Wilson. (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 her siblings and her 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.”
At the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Vargas studied journalism with 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), 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.
In 2008, Iris Monica submitted her poetry work as part of an application for a poetry class at the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University, and was granted a place amongst dozens of applicants to study poetry under the guidance of Academy of American Poets award winner and gifted, kind teacher Peter Richards (“Nude Siren”, “Helsinski”).
Of writing, Vargas has said, “My belief as a writer is that to become successful, hard work – i.e. practice, practice and more practice – is what is required, even during difficult times when confidence fails, especially when rejection letters abound and faith in the process of writing vanishes.”
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, reading Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer tirelessly.
Her work has been featured in numerous publications nationally and internationally, including several literary anthologies in the U.S. and Spain; science magazines such as Science News, SEED Magazine, Bay State Banner, Harvard Science, Harvard Gazette, Bulletin of Anesthesia History, National Association of Science Writer (NASW); periodicals and literary magazines such as El Nuevo Día (in Puerto Rico), Letralia (in Venezuela), Isla Negra (in Lanusei, Italy), Letras Salvajes (Puerto Rico), Poetas del siglo XXI (Spain); 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. In 2014, Vargas was guest of honor at the Celebración Internacional del Libro Hispano, in Miami.
For 2014-2016, Iris Mónica was Lead Instructor of Science Writing for the MIT Online Science, Technology and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) which she became a part of in 2012.
Released in September 13, 2013, Iris Monica Vargas’ first book, La última caricia, 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. The book, a poetic meditation on the process of dissection of a human body is 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 booksellers such as Libreria Magica, El Candil, and Laberinto Viejo.
Vargas is currently a medical student, interested not only in the anatomy of medicine but also in how best to understand it, and make it work for the benefit of people, within the context of the society in which we are currently living.
“I am an advocate of empathy, both in medicine, and in every day life,” Vargas has said, “I understand 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.”
Photograph (below): Iris Monica Vargas by Kenny Viese.