She's an Astronomer: Pamela L. Gay

Pamela & her horse Skye

Pamela & her horse Skye

Dr Pamela L. Gay is on the faculty at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where she teaches, produces the Astronomy Cast podcast with Fraser Cain, and works with the Galaxy Zoo project. In addition to podcasting, she also works to communicate astronomy to the public through her Star Stryder blog, through frequent public talks, and through popular articles. She received a B.S. in Astrophysis from Michigan State University in 1996 and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Texas in 2002. While it may seem (even to her!) that she either lives on campus or online, she actually lives in a historic house in southern Illinois with her husband, two dogs, and a lot of books. Whenever she can, she escapes to Liberty Prairie Farm to ride her horse Skye.

  • How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?

It is hard to remember how I first heard of Galaxy Zoo. It is somewhat lost in the haze of the moment. The day it launched, I was, like so many of you, just a person with an internet connection who saw this sudden flurry of discussion about this new thing called “Galaxy Zoo.” It seemed to be everywhere at once: On Bad Astronomy, on Universe Today, on the Astronomy Blog, on Orbiting Frog. I have to admit, in a moment of cynicism, I decided not to blog about it on my own Star Stryder Blog because, well, it was already covered by everyone else and I didn’t want to be just another voice saying, “You should check out Galaxy Zoo.” The first time I actually mentioned it on my site as more than a passing link was in the fall of 2007. In retrospect, maybe I should have been an internet lemming just that once.

  • What has been your main involvement in the Galaxy Zoo project?

While I initially didn’t initially inspect Galaxy Zoo closely, I have to admit that I always kept the project in the corner of my peripheral vision. I listened to Jordan Raddick talk about it at the October 2007 AAVSO meeting, and then interviewed Chris and Jordan about early results at the Austin AAS meeting in January of 2008. It was this first meeting with Chris that sucked me into the project with a single offhand hand comment. I was getting ready to attend a March AAVSO meeting at Cambridge University, and I was gearing up for the International Year of Astronomy, and Chris invited me to add onto that AAVSO meeting a side trip to give a talk on IYA at Oxford. During that March visit, Chris and I talked Zoo, and we got to brainstorming, and somewhere in an otherwise ordinary afternoon, sitting on brightly colored chairs beside the elevators in Denys Wilkinson Building, we decided to write the grant that would become a major chunk of the Galaxy Zoo’s new backend. It may not sound very exciting, but as a coder (and as someone who knows what lays ahead in the next software release) it was all quite amazing. Over the spring of 2008, Chris and I wrote first a white paper, then a pair of grants with Jordan as our co-investigator, and then we waited (and Chris wrote additional grants). In November 2009, with good news from many fronts, we knew all systems were go, and along with Arfon Smith and a team of students (most notable Michael Parrish), I’ve spent the past year writing software, while at the same time I’ve been working with Jordan and Georgia Bracey to try and understand what it is that makes people zoo. I keep telling myself I should be doing science too (and I have stuck my nose into some observing proposals), but there is so much completely new to learn about what drives people to participate in citizen science …. Well, studying people has been wonderful distraction, and it has been a pleasure to keep busy trying to understand the people who make the Zoo the great community that it is.

  • What do you like most about being involved in Galaxy Zoo?

It has always been important for me to communicate to people that anyone can be involved in astronomy. This is part of what drew me to the AAVSO, a group which gets people involved in observing variable stars. With Galaxy Zoo, getting people involved in meaningful research has gotten even easier, and I’m proud to be able to point people who say “I wanted to be an astronomer when I was a kid,” at Galaxy Zoo and tell them “Now, you can be an astronomer. No excuses.” It’s even cooler that I can point them at Galaxy Zoo and know that some small corner of the code was written by me.

  • What do you think is the most interesting astronomical question Galaxy Zoo will help to solve?

The thing about science is the most interesting questions that get answered are the ones no one realized they were asking. So far Galaxy Zoo has found blue elliptical galaxies, red spiral galaxies in clusters, what may be a light echo from a quasar (Hanny’s Voorwerp), and small wildly star bursting galaxies (the peas). I think the most interesting question Galaxy Zoo will help answer may just be, “What amazing things can the universe offer that we didn’t imagine?”

  • How/when did you first get interested in Astronomy?

Sometimes there are things present in our lives that we don’t even notice. Asking me this questions sort of feels like getting asked, “When did you first decide you liked French fries?” I just can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in astronomy and when I didn’t like French fries. The first memory I have of doing something related to astronomy is looking through a small dime-store telescope at the moon with my dad when I was about 5. I’m not sure why, but I lied to him that I could see cosmonauts walking dogs on the moon (Somehow I knew Russian’s had people in space in those late ‘70s days, and I knew Russians had flown dogs. I was a weird little kid!). My dad let me get away with the lie, and I’ve been looking through telescopes (and telling the truth about what I see), ever since. As a kid I got Odyssey magazine, and then Sky and Telescope. I went to Space Camp, and studied astronomy in High School. My first job was reducing VLA data at Haystack Observatory my senior year of high school. In college, I just kept going until one day I had my PhD. The universe keeps offering me new things to be interested in, and while I also love computer programming and writing, all these other interests can be tied into my work with astronomy. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of interesting astronomy ideas to chase after.

  • What (if any) do you think are the main barriers to women’s involvement in Astronomy?

Sadly, I think a lot of academia is still very much an old boys network, where barriers put up by people are not necessarily conscious efforts but are nonetheless present and real. Barriers can be as subtle as there being too few women’s bathrooms (sometimes only 1 on every other floor of a science building); it can be as awkward as equipment simply being designed for tall, flat chested, heavy object lifting men; and it can be as humiliating as a university forgetting that sometimes an overnight trip needs to make accommodations for the one girl in the group of 10.

Unfortunately, sometimes the barriers are also not very subtle. I’ve faced the very real and blatant problem of people assuming, since I’m in a physics department, that I must be a secretary, and I’ve had students assume I’m a Mrs while at the same time assuming a Dr of my male peers. And I’ve experienced worse, but those stories aren’t for the Internet. The thing is, for every bad experience I’ve faced, I’ve also had an opportunity. While it is harder to succeed as a woman, positive accomplishments are noticed and remembered (And since there are so few women, the positive things I do are easier for people to remember as being things I did.) I suspect it will take at least a generation (and major reform to things like maternity leave and health care) for real change to take place, but I believe the change has started.

  • Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?

In ninth grade I got a copy of Timothy Ferris’s “Coming of Age in the Milky Way” for Christmas and read about Henrietta Swan Leavitt and the other Harvard women who worked as human calculators in places I myself had been to. These women had everything against them, but they were able to find community and they were able to do amazing science. As I read that book, I got sucked into the history of variable star astronomy and how Leavitt’s pulsating variables could be used to measure distances. I decided to follow in her footsteps, sometimes literally and sometimes academically, and over the years I’ve worked on both RR Lyrae and Cepheid variables, and I’ve also worked at Harvard. I’m not as good as those women – they set a high bar to strive for – but each day I can try to aspire to be a little bit better and achieve a little more as I build on the science they worked on 100 years ago.

This post is part of the ongoing She’s an Astronomer series on the Galaxy Zoo Blog is support of the IYA2009 cornerstone project of the same name (She’s an Astronomer). We are listed on the She’s an Astronomer website in their Profiles.

  • Zooites:
  • Researchers:
    • Dr. Vardha Nicola Bennert (researcher at UCSB involved in Hanny’s Voorwerp followup and the “peas” project).
    • Carie Cardamone (graduate student at Yale who lead the Peas paper).
    • Dr. Kate Land (original Galaxy Zoo team member and first-author of the first Galaxy Zoo scientific publication; now working in the financial world).
    • Dr. Karen Masters (researcher at Portsmouth working on red spirals, and editor of this blog series.)

Still to come in the series – more Galaxy Zoo volunteers and researchers. We’re not done yet!


About karenlmasters

Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Haverford College, USA. Project Scientist for Galaxy Zoo. Spokesperson for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Busy having fun with astronomy!

7 responses to “She's an Astronomer: Pamela L. Gay”

  1. Jason says :

    Wow. Dr. Gay is dauntingly inspirational… and (to quote her own favourite lines) “that’s just cool!”

  2. Hanny says :

    Nice one Pamela. 🙂

  3. Hanny says :

    Oh and meant to say, what a lovely horse Skye is! 😉

  4. ElisabethB says :

    as with the other contributions, loved it ! 🙂

  5. elizatbeth says :

    Wonderful interview. Keep up the good work.

  6. Jo says :

    Fantastic. Very interesting, well done you.
    I love the photo too.

  7. chanel purses for sale says :

    This is certainly like my third time coming from your site. Regularly I would not make comments on, however will need to point out that this information really pushed me to accomplish this. Really awesome article!

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