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, she grew up in Barrio Bajuras, a small, humble, 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 was born with the encouragement of Sra. Chinea, Sra. Molina, Sr. Agustín Flores, Sra. Lucila Rivera, among other amazing teachers and mentors.
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, though no longer a practicing physicist, she still loves the field and her reading interests are wide: from high energy astrophysics and cosmology, to emergency medicine, space medicine, and the science of resuscitation, as well as the social component of the practice of medicine. In literature, Iris Monica is interested in – and also practices – poetry 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, reading Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and Puerto Rican Julia de Burgos, tirelessly.
Becoming A Student
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 one of only eight individuals chosen 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), 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 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 to study poetry under the guidance of Academy of American Poets award winner and gifted, kind teacher/poet/artist Peter Richards (“Nude Siren”, “Helsinski”).
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, as Instructor, in 2012.
During the summer of 2017, Vargas was selected to be part of the Yale Disciplinary Center for Bioethics.
Learning The Other Language
“Cuantos más idiomas sepas, con más personas podrás hablar e intercambiar ideas. Los idiomas son lo más humano que tenemos.” -Iris Mónica Vargas
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.”
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. 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
“For every little thing one does achieve, there are a hundred or more that one couldn’t do. Every piece published is the result of all of those that nobody wanted, and every single one that still has not worked. Every CV is accompanied, though invisibly, by what I call The Anti CV. – 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 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), Revista Poetas y Escritores Miami, Goldfoundation.org, and Revista Fábula (Logroño, 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.
Listen to this podcast where Vargas reads three of her poems. (Duration: 1 minute)
The Adventure of A First Book
“Some of us feel invisible, be it because of the color of our skin, our background, our country of origin, our sexual preference, our gender, even imagined things that we have somehow internalized as our own — who knows? There are so many categories, if you think of them, you will get overwhelmed and immobile. 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. 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 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. We can explore who we are until we know. We can create over a wider canvas—happily and intensely. 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
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 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 Monica 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 in Cambridge, MA.
Her second book, El libro azul, is forthcoming (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” as well. It is about the act of creation as a tool for the machine –The mind? That centaur, half human, half something else– to explore and decipher what it is.
Vargas is currently a medical student, interested not only in the anatomy of medicine 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 the society in which we are currently living—a business-oriented, consumerist system where even medical schools can fail to teach about human interactions, focusing instead on transactions between “clients” and “providers”, “disease” and “treatment.” 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.
“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.”
Street Advice From a Person Who Is Still Learning
Of writing, Vargas has said, “To be able to tell a good story, hard work (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.”
“Being a writer is about persistence. We know we have something to say, a story to tell, and we feel that it must be told. So we tell it. And we tell it regardless of whether somebody else validates it or not, not worrying so much about what we are called, or about the recognition or awards we might receive (or not) but about the quality of the telling itself, and above all, about the honesty with which we tell the story.”
“It’s best, more productive, to be absolutely honest with oneself, as well, humbly recognizing the distance one must cover, the things one must still learn. (And of course, this is all quite difficult to do–letting go of the ego we all have, and hold on to sometimes as a defense mechanism to help us survive.) Listening to advice is also essential. Being arrogant or stubborn in the face of constructive criticism doesn’t necessarily carry a dream further. It often serves to limit our potential.”
“We cannot ever lose that state of being emergent, or beginners. What I suspect can happen when people feel they are experts at something is that they begin losing their state of curiosity, and if that happens, then learning stops, creativity dwindles. And happiness begins to feel elusive, because a significant part of feeling satisfied and happy, I intuit, stems from being part of a process of discovery.”
“In the end, we know we can get there, wherever “there” is or whatever it means for each one of us. We will get there. We just have to keep on writing. The most important thing is to each day become better at crafting our stories. That’s what we must focus on. That must be the priority in all of this. And that is what will bring calm and peace into the process.”
“Finally, we must be proud of our own life story. Failures and successes: it’s all part of it. Don’t waste your time envying others. Focus on your work and your work only. Use that bothersome anxiety that we all feel sometimes, when we think someone else is doing something cool that we wish we were doing instead, to get inspired by others. Whenever you start experiencing that anxiety, it means you have temporarily lost track of your own path, your own experience, your own dreams and ideas. The remedy, infallible, is to remind yourself about your “vision,” or if you don’t have one yet, ask yourself what it is that you want to create. Consult your brain, your heart, your imagination, and start creating.”
“Be grateful to the people who helped you along the way. Even if you sound like a weirdo to them because of how much you say thank you, do it: say thank you. They don’t have to help you. Nobody does. Everybody has their own problems and a life filled with work and obligations, happiness and tears of their own. So if they do help you, the least and/or best you can do is say thank you. Let them know that you never forget them or their gesture. Make sure they know you appreciate their kindness.”
“Creativity does not have a deadline and it doesn’t have a limit—it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what your background is, your race, your age, etc. Your superpower is your imagination and it always allows you to reinvent yourself regardless of the circumstances around you. Respect who you are and others. Be kind. There is space for everyone.”
Photograph (below) by Kenny Viese. New York.