A fluency in the ties that bind the universe — and people

Zemenu, who excelled at physics and languages, immersed himself in new connections at Yale.
Barkotel Zemenu

Barkotel Zemenu (Photo by Daniel Havlat)

Barkotel Zemenu is a believer in the revelatory nature of relationships.

At the most fundamental level, he says, relationships between unseen particles form the scaffolding upon which the universe flourishes; on a more human level, relationships between people — especially when speaking a common language — make the experience of living deeply fulfilling.

Zemenu, an international student from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, immersed himself in both kinds of relationships at Yale, where he has been a resident of Grace Hopper College.

He excelled in physics. For more than three years, he worked in the lab of David Moore, an associate professor of physics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, focusing primarily on research and development for a detector that may one day prove the existence of a theorized nuclear process called neutrinoless double beta decay.

Barkotel Zemenu with telescopes
In 2023, Zemenu spent part of the summer working on developing an algorithm for detecting variable stars using the Large Array Survey Telescope (LAST) in the Negev Desert in Israel. (Credit: David Polishook)

Zemenu gave physics presentations at multiple scientific conferences nationally and internationally. He spent a summer doing astrophysics research in Israel; he spent another summer studying quantum gravity in Germany. Along with way, he amassed a sizable collection of scholarships, honors, and leadership awards — including his recent selection as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University and an invitation to meet with more than 30 Nobel laureates in physics as a Lindau Young Scientist.

In a way, however, Zemenu says his treasures lie elsewhere.

I did not expect college to be the place where academics stopped being my life’s top priority,” he said. “It was a place where I would find far more surpassing joy in the depth of my relationships, living with a fundamental others-centeredness.”

The intrusion of the COVID-19 pandemic certainly was a factor, he explained. He’d taken his first year of classes via Zoom, from Ethiopia. Once he got to the Yale campus in New Haven, he did not take his interactions with his new community for granted.

Whether on a jog on the Farmington Canal Linear Trail, a serene stroll through Grove Street Cemetery, or a brainstorming session at the Wright Lab, Zemenu treasured the opportunity to make new connections.

Almost by accident, he discovered the joy of learning a new language and engaging with people on an even deeper level. He’d grudgingly taken Hebrew to fulfill his foreign language requirement (hoping it was similar to Amharic, his Semitic mother tongue) but immediately fell in love with the process of learning a new language from scratch. He was listening to Hebrew audiobooks just a few weeks into his first semester and ended up publishing a 250-word Hebrew poem in Yale’s Accent Multilingual Magazine by the end of the semester.

Zemenu took classes in Mandarin, ancient Greek, and Arabic. It opened new worlds for him, he said.

A man standing next to a scientific poster
Zemenu presented his research at the American Physical Society division of nuclear physics meeting in New Orleans in 2022.

I just enjoyed immersing myself in communities of native speakers, religiously attending language tables and cultural events and native-level conversation groups throughout the week,” he said. “Being in this constant, unfiltered language bath not only taught me the colloquialisms and cultural nuances that textbooks can’t teach, but also conditioned me to the natural flow and rhythm of the languages I was learning.”

At this point, he added, new connections and relationships spring up everywhere he looks — including restaurant take-out menus. During a conversation, he pulled a menu out of his backpack and pointed out several Mandarin characters.

It’s amazing that even though I don’t recognize some of these characters, they don’t feel quite foreign because they’re built out of smaller characters I do recognize,” Zemenu said. “You can combine elements of these characters and make something completely different. It’s almost like the construction of atoms, or the nucleus, or even the proton and the neutron.”

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this