What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
My mother is my greatest inspiration, so she immediately comes to mind when I think of the power of human connection.
I was about six the first time she took me to her office. I remember walking into a massive building about 20-stories-tall where my mom introduced me to the security guard. Before we headed toward the elevators, the man asked how our drive was, and my mom asked about his girlfriend. It was apparent to me that in this brief interaction, in some small way, they were both at home with the knowledge that someone cared about their life and story.
Small yet caring exchanges like this followed my mom through the day: the barista working at the coffee shop downstairs was excited to see her and offered a new caramel syrup for her to try, and her coworkers let us play hide-and-seek in their office (the most memorable part of the day) because she had talked with them about the challenges of having young kids with too much energy. On our way out of the office, the security guard waved goodbye to me, and it meant a lot to me that he remembered my name.
Watching my mom interact with her colleagues and acquaintances with genuine care taught me that you can build community with anyone over anything if you are willing to listen to them. Learning about the people you are surrounded by is powerful. You can make any environment into a place where people feel at home.
What values guide your personal life and your work?
I believe everyone deserves an opportunity to learn — to pursue their interests and reflect on how those elements fit into the rest of the world. How we acquire knowledge and new skills looks different for different people, so learning is not limited to the education system.
The value that guides my work is my curiosity. I want to understand how I know what I know, and I enjoy learning about different topics and experiences that can be used to help others.
Natalia Urbas at Cornell
Natalia Urbas '23 (3rd from left) receives the 2023 JFK award from members of the award committee, from left Cynthia Wolloch ’64, Carolyn Neuman '64 and Katie Dealy '00. **Dave Burbank/Provided
When did a person or experience change your mind about an idea or belief?
My mom had a hip replacement about four years ago, and my grandmother picked an auspicious date for the surgery. At the time, I was shocked that my mother would plan an important medical procedure around the stars, but the operation turned out well, and with the help of physical therapy, she recovered quickly.
This experience helped me understand my mother’s and grandmother’s views of religion and spirituality. I realized there is power in respecting cultural traditions and beliefs that my family has relied on for centuries, including ones that science does not have the answer to.
As a scientist, I now focus on the idea that knowledge is not binary. There are many ways of knowing things, and science is just one tool to understand the world around us.
What are you working on right now?
Housing, on the whole, has been on my mind as I prepare to move to a new city after graduating from Cornell. One of my main goals is to support my college house, Lodge Co-op, where I have lived for the past three years.
Lodge Co-op aims to create a community for students of color and first-generation college students. As I graduate and leave this community, I'm working to promote the stability and longevity of this organization. We have a long way to go in terms of financial infrastructure, but I believe that Lodge has the potential to make a big difference in the experience of first-generation college students.
My recent move to D.C., where I am now working, also made me think about how I can make a place a home and support the surrounding community. D.C. has undergone a lot of gentrification lately, and as a young person moving to the city for a new job, I am part of this shift. I want to learn how I can contribute to my new community while respecting and valuing the people, culture, and businesses that have been there long before me.
What is giving you hope? What positive visions do you have for our future?
Right now, books, movies, and other forms of media are giving me a lot of hope. Not necessarily because they paint a version of the future that I believe in, but because they represent a more honest version of the past. Two main examples of this come to mind. The first is “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai. The book tells the story of a group of friends, predominately gay men, and jumps back and forth between the 80s and the present, showcasing what it was like to be gay during the AIDS epidemic in a way that is as heartbreaking as it is hopeful and, at times, even joyous. It is a reminder that no one, at no time in history, can be reduced to a singular element of their experience.
The second book that gave me hope is “There There” by Tommy Orange that follows the story of 12 Native people who end up at the Big Oakland Powwow. This book gave me hope for two reasons: its honest portrayal of a story that doesn’t always get told and its critical acclaim, including being recognized as a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Stories like “There There” have existed longer than this country, but, until recently, they haven’t received widespread recognition. It is not easy to tell a story of a community that is not receiving the support they need,to paint its members as full human beings with the good, the bad, and everything in between, and to make the world care. I think books like “There There” pave the way for society to come together and work to support the communities that need it most.