Channeling Aristotle and Einstein

Philosopher, physicist, painter, and polyglot. At the age of 20, Camilla Ora is already all these things. And she’s eternally grateful to Caltech alumni—because, without their support, none of it would be possible.

“You’re giving somebody an opportunity to live their best life,” says the Boston native, a junior double-majoring in physics and philosophy who has received both Mason Smith and Robert and Amelia Peeler scholarships. “I have all these great aspirations, but I only have them because I can have them. It’s only through Caltech that I can do that.”

This past summer, Ora built a helium-neon injection-locked laser in the Caltech lab of physics professor Nick Hutzler (BS ’07). Thanks to a Hugh F. and Audy Colvin International Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), the previous summer saw her in the Dark Cosmology Centre of the Niels Bohr Institute, delving into the Impossibly Early Galaxy Problem.

Science is only part of the picture. As a philosophy major, Ora is intrigued by ontology and metaphysics, especially questions around time, reality, and consciousness.

Convinced the tools of applied math will reveal important facts about the characteristics of different cognitive states, such as dreaming, wakefulness, and trances, Ora contends this a niche that is “understudied and poorly understood.”

She also studies languages, having achieved proficiency in Spanish and Mandarin in middle and high school. She understands and speaks a little Polish and Igbo, too—the mother tongues of her immigrant parents. In her spare time, she studies French.

Painting is another interest. She plans to finish The Light at the End of the Tunnel, her Blacker House mural, later this year. With a stylistic nod to van Gogh’s Starry Night, the tableau she began as a freshman celebrates major human achievements, including the pyramids of Giza, the Statue of Liberty, the first flight at Kitty Hawk, and the Apollo 11 mission.

“You’re giving somebody an opportunity to live their best life”
- Camilla Ora

Challenging Times

Bright as Ora’s future now seems, things could have turned out differently. Her Nigerian-born father and Polish-born mother met at the Medical University of Warsaw. Soon after graduating, they impulsively emigrated to the United States and lost no time starting a family. The early years were rough, but in time, family finances improved. Mom found work as a hospital-based pharmacy technician, and dad became a medical translator. Ora and her two siblings were admitted to elite Boston-area prep schools on scholarship.

Although she excelled in school, other challenges arose. When Ora was 16, just as SATs and AP exams loomed, she contracted a mysterious illness that jeopardized her hard-earned academic success. Aggressive antibiotics eventually knocked out the bacterium identified as the cause of her disease. Ora also credits healthy diet changes and judicious use of natural medicine for her recovery. Ora plans to share her insights in a project she calls The Encyclopedia of Unorthodox Medicine.

The Road Ahead

Using her experience to help others is important to Ora, who for the third year in a row serves on Caltech’s Academic Research Committee and Caltech’s Board of Control. Previously, she represented Blacker House as an upper-class counselor.

Down the road, she envisions doctoral studies and an academic career in theoretical physics. She has also planned out her first sabbatical—teaching math and science to schoolgirls in rural Nigeria.

She says she is “completely excited” about the future. “I’ve learned so much about myself. I’m more sure than ever where I want to go and what I want to do.”

The generosity of Caltech alumni has played an outsized role in that evolution.

“I cannot even express in words how grateful I am,” Ora says. “This would be impossible without them.”

Giving Priorities