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Hot List 2014: Ved Chirayath Brings Pride to His Work in Astrophysics

Point Foundation Scholar Ved Chirayath didn’t have any LGBT role models to look up to as a child when his interest in space was first piqued, so the research scientist in the earth science division at NASA decided to become one. While he always aspired to pursue a career as an astrophysicist, it was a harrowing experience in Russia that truly defined his path. In addition to working full-time at NASA and attending Stanford as a Ph.D. candidate in aeronautics and astronautics—and working as a fashion photographer for WWD and Vogue on the side—he spearheaded a campaign to include a NASA float in this year’s San Francisco Pride Parade, to be held June 29.

FRONTIERS: How did your love of space come about?

Ved Chirayath: I was 7 years old when my father took me to the JPL open house in Pasadena. I got to see the Mars lander coming in live. I met Buzz Aldrin and knew that’s what I wanted to do. 

F: Is it true that you actually detected a planet?

VC: Yes, I was a sophomore in high school and had been doing amateur astronomy. I got a small refractor telescope, and it couldn’t really hack it, so I built a telescope to do planetary detection. After two years of sitting on top of a cold mountain, I got my first detection of a planet. I received the MIT Distinguished Scientist Award and they named an asteroid after me. It’s called Chirayath 19,004.

F: You completed your undergraduate studies in Russia. What was that like?

VC: I didn’t know no one would speak English, so I was thrown into full-on lectures in Russian. I also had three racial attacks. There was this neo-Nazi movement going on, and it was a really hostile place if you were perceived to be a migrant worker from the former Soviet Republics. They could’ve targeted me for being gay, but it was my skin color that got me. I had to leave three weeks shy of graduating because they targeted a guy who was supposed to be me. He was stabbed 18 times and was in a coma for six months.

F: How did that affect you?

VC: When I got back to the States, I resolved to change how I did things. I still wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I’m not going to hide my identity. In aerospace, anyone who dares to stand up gets attacked. Even putting together this LGBT pride float, which is NASA’s first participation in a Pride parade, was a Herculean effort. The idea is to say, “NASA doesn’t exist without this group.” We are anticipating about 100 people marching. We have an astronaut on board, our center’s director and a lot of senior management, which is huge. Five years ago, I did not see this happening.

F: Why did you decide to join the Point Foundation?

VC: I’ve been through what a lot of the students in that organization go through. They come out to their family and they’re cut off—emotionally and financially. If you’ve tried your whole life to have a perfect GPA and get into the top universities and then find out your family is going to sabotage that, it can be devastating. A lot of students will drop out. Point steps in and says, “We’re going to take over this responsibility.” It’s those kinds of kids who go on to become leaders.