By Published: June 11, 2024

“Versatile” is an apt, if succinct, way to describe Harshini Sinul.

The native of Wayzata, Minnesota, graduated in May from the University of Colorado Boulder with majors in physics and astronomy with cum laude honors, plus a minor in dance.

Sunil

Harshani Sunil

Originally an astrophysics major, Sunil decided when she was a sophomore to instead pursue a double major, with the goal of having more options when it came time to pursue a master’s degree in physics. Fortunately, there is a good amount of crossover in the coursework required to earn separate majors in astronomy and physics, Sunil says, but not so much when it comes to the sciences and dance.

“There’s definitely not any big intersections between dance and astronomy and physics,” she says with a laugh. “But I’ve been doing dance since I was young, so it’s a big passion of mine and a way to stay active.”

Attending CU Boulder combined the best of both worlds, allowing her to get a degree from a university with a nationally ranked physics department that also happens to be known for its dance program.

“One of my memorable dance memories comes from a Transnational dance course taught by Brittney Washington. This was my first class back in person after COVID,” Sunil recalls. “My peers and I would reserve dance rooms and practice together, laugh, give feedback and often get coffee or dinner afterward. This was one of my core memories with the dance community. I was building a community and practicing dance—two of my favorite pastimes. 

She adds, “The feeling of support and community is a common theme at the CU dance department. …The community is supportive and creates a welcoming environment that I will remember forever.”

The fact she was able to get a scholarship to attend CU, and her love for Colorado, were two strong added bonuses.

Despite carrying a full course load, Sunil found time to pursue other activities that interested her. Her freshman year, she participated in the CU marching band.

“I was in marching band in high school, but I wasn’t sure if I would participate in college. But I spoke with the marching band director and some of the students and decided to give it a go,” she says. “I loved it, and I made a lot of friends.”

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions on mass gatherings put the kibosh on the rest of the season.

Subsequently, Sunil took on several university jobs, including one as an assistant for Zach Berta-Thompson, a professor in the astrophysics department, for which she used her advanced computer software skills to create two-dimensional images of stars outside the solar system. 

Sunil became a research assistant for Berta-Thompson after taking his astronomy course her freshman year and being impressed with his passion for science. Interacting with members of the astronomy department during the COVID-19 lockdown “really allowed me to have some people to converse with and depend upon, and it opened my eyes to different possibilities within the department and how academia really works,” she says, adding that Berta-Thompson became a mentor.

Other important mentors included Betsy McIntosh, Laurie Langdon and Grace Rexroth in the Learning Assistant program, where Sunil served as a learning assistant and later as a mentor to other learning assistants.

“Being an LA mentor opened me to a supportive community and a plethora of life skills that I use every day,” she says. “Having the support and opportunities the LA program offered, I was able to establish a leadership role in the community.”

Later, while working as a research assistant for the physics department, Sunil created a study with Bethany Wilcox, assistant professor of physics, to detect and characterize burnout among university physics students.  

“We basically designed our study from the ground up and created our own version of an interview study,” says Sunil, who presented her findings at a July research conference in Sacramento. The study found that lots of physics students suffer from burnout at one time or another, but the severity of the symptoms varies greatly.

She hopes to continue her work in physics education research with a professor at Miami University in Ohio, where she will pursue her master’s degree this fall.

At CU Boulder, Sunil also served as a volunteer on a diversity, equity and inclusion committee for the astrophysics department. The group hosted a DEI seminar for grad students and worked on overall efforts to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all students. This year, the group also worked to create a special fund to aid students studying astronomy or astrophysics who need emergency financial assistance.

Sunil says she’s grateful for the many connections she made at CU Boulder, the experiences she had and the skills she gained. Now, as she embarks on the next chapter in her life, she says she feels prepared to tackle whatever comes next.

“I feel very set up to be successful as I start my master’s program as well as continuing research,” she says. “That’s the biggest thing I’m taking away from CU—feeling prepared to move forward.”