She's an Astronomer: Meg Urry

Prof. Meg Urry is a professor of Physics and Chair of the Physics Department at Yale University. Her research concerns supermassive black holes: how and when they grew, how they inject power to their surroundings, and how they interact with their host galaxies.

Meg was born in the Midwest region of the U.S. and moved to the Boston area as a teenager. After high school she went to college nearby, at Tufts University, where she double majored in mathematics and physics.

After Tufts, Meg went to graduate school in Physics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she got her PhD for research on blazars at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington. Her JHU advisor was Art Davidsen, who during this time proposed the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) as the observatory to run the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) for NASA.  While at Goddard she met her future husband, Andy Szymkowiak, also a graduate student in Physics. (Interesting fact: 2/3 of married women in physics are married to men in physics or closely related fields.)

Meg then took a postdoctoral position back in Boston, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Claude Canizares’s group.

After MIT, Meg moved back to Baltimore for a second postdoctoral position, at STScI, now in a new building, with 200 employees. (When she left JHU 3 years earlier, STScI had only a handful of employees housed in the JHU Physics building.) She also married Andy Szymkowiak, whom she met at Goddard. Three years after returning to STScI, she became an Assistant Astronomer on the tenure track there, rising through the ranks to tenure and then full Astronomer. She had her two daughters, Amelia and Sophia, while an Assistant Astronomer, after which (too late to benefit her own family) she agitated for better parental leave policies, onsite daycare, and a lactation room. She was the prime organizer, with Laura Danly, of the first Women in Astronomy meeting, held at STScI in 1992, which gave rise to the Baltimore Charter.  For her day job, she managed the group of research assistants who helped staff and visiting scientists use Hubble and later ran the Science Program Selection Office, which determines what observations HST will do. Meg really enjoyed the proposal solicitation and review because it involved hundreds of scientists from around the world, engaged for a few intense weeks in reviewing and ranking exciting new ideas for Hubble science investigations.

But Meg was really born to teach. She loved being a Teaching Assistant in graduate school and a Recitation Instructors at MIT. She even took a 6-week detour from graduate school to teach physics to Air Force personnel at Ramstein Air Force base in Germany. Her students were talented non-commissioned officers who needed the Physics plus lab credit to qualify for Officer Candidate School, and she loved teaching them physics: lecture every morning, labs every afternoon, and help sessions every evening. Physics, physics, physics – and all of it fun.

In 2001, Meg moved to Yale University, roughly midway between Boston and Baltimore, thus ending her oscillations along the East Coast. There she directed the newly created Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, establishing a prize postdoctoral fellowship program, co-leading a Key Project in the Yale-Chile collaboration, and getting Yale involved in the Keck telescope consortium. She taught concept-based Introductory Physics, introducing “clickers” and peer-to-peer learning, and she created a new astrophysics course to introduce science majors to active frontiers in the field, namely, exoplanets, black holes, and the accelerating Universe. She developed a lively research group, with graduate students Jonghak Woo, Ezequiel Treister, Jeff van Duyne, Brooke Simmons, Shanil Virani, and Carie Cardamone (a blogger on the Galaxy Zoo forum); postdoctoral associates Eleni Chatzichristou, Yasunobu Uchiyama, Kevin Schawinski and Erin Bonning; and numerous wonderful undergraduates. In 2007, Meg was appointed Chair of the Physics Department, and was appointed to a second term this year. Her daughter Amelia is now a freshman at Yale and her daughter Sophia is a junior at Hopkins high school in New Haven.


The most wonderful girls in the world (left portrait by Jada Rowland, 2001; right photo from vacation in Paris, 2008)

  • How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?

In 2008 I hired a new postdoc, Kevin Schawinski, who co-founded Galaxy Zoo with Chris Lintott. When Kevin told me about the concept and what had already been accomplished, I was deeply impressed. It is a brilliant idea and the results are mind-boggling. Galaxy Zoo has greatly improved the quality of galaxy classification and has made possible investigations that could never have been done previously.

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

In the past two years my group has used Galaxy Zoo results in several recent studies, led by Kevin Schawinski (now an Einstein Fellow in my group) and Carie Cardamone (a graduate student finishing her thesis with me). We have published on Green Peas (Cardamone et al. 2009), the phasing of black hole growth and star formation in the host galaxy (Schawinski et al. 2009), and the dependence of black hole growth on host galaxy morphology (Schawinski et al. 2010a). None of these results would have been possible without Galaxy Zoo.  My favorite (because I still don’t understand the results) is the paper led by Kevin on the different modes of black hole growth in elliptical and spiral galaxies (Schawinski et al. 2010a). When Kevin suggested separating active galaxies (galaxies whose central supermassive black hole is actively accreting and thus producing lots of non-stellar light) by morphology, I frankly didn’t think the investigation would turn up anything interesting. Boy, was I wrong! We found that patterns of activity differ markedly in ellipticals and spirals, with high-mass black holes growing the latter and mostly low-mass black holes growing in the former. The trends in ellipticals may make sense if mergers are important in triggering AGN activity (see another paper from our group, Schawinski et al. 2010b, that uses Galaxy Zoo classifications of mergers ) but the results for spirals still have me puzzled. It’s a great, fun challenge to understand what’s going on.

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

I came late to astronomy compared to many of my colleagues. As a high school student, I liked every field – English (19th and 20th century British and American writers especially, History (I remember writing several papers on the Civil War just for fun), Math (*loved* calculus! Why don’t they teach it earlier?), languages (I’ve studied Spanish, French, German and Italian), Chemistry (thanks to the marvelous Miss Helen Crawley) – well, you get the picture: I was a thoroughly undecided undergraduate. Then I took Physics as a freshman at Tufts and for the first time, felt both the challenge and reward of understanding some difficult material. The summer after my junior year at Tufts, I was lucky enough to get a research internship with Richard Porcas at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia. (My roommate for the summer was Melissa McGrath, then an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke and later a colleague and planetary astronomy at STScI. Melissa now heads the Science Division at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.) Porcas taught me some astronomy (he was probably a bit horrified to realize I knew very little), especially radio astronomy, and he also introduced me to Monty Python. (That summer, the Queen visited the U.S. and passed through Charlottesville. Porcas, a Brit, made sure to catch the procession.)

One of my main jobs was to use the Palomar Sky Survey prints to find optical counterparts to radio sources from the Jodrell Bank high declination survey. I kept a notebook carefully describing the fields around each radio source. (Since the spatial resolution of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope was not as good as that on the PSS prints, there were sometimes more than one candidate counterpart, often offset from the nominal position.) Two memorable things happened as a result of that work: I saw the first gravitational lens, 0957+561; a reproduction of my neat handwriting noting “two blue stellar objects of equal magnitude about 5 arcseconds from the radio source” appears in a paper by Dennis Walsh in 1979, which recounted its discovery. Of course, I had no idea I was looking at a gravitational lens – I didn’t even know what they were at that point. But it was nice nonetheless to be a part of history. The second funny thing was that Porcas realized, halfway through the summer, that he could get an unbiased estimate of the false detection rate of optical counterparts if he fed me some random, meaningless positions. Sure enough, I started finding more and more supposed radio sources with no optical counterparts. (In reality, these were just blank-sky positions.) I can’t remember if I noticed the dramatic change in identification rate or if Richard finally confessed his secret scheme – at the time, I was a bit chagrined to be duped so easily, but now I see it as an excellent research protocol.

In any case, my summer at NRAO was what got me into astronomy. It was fun, the people were friendly (weekly volleyball games were a favorite, as was watching the Olympics with my new astronomer friends, and it was amazing to realize people earned a living doing something so interesting. After that experience, I was going to do astronomy and astrophysics if at all possible.

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

It took me quite a while to accept that the playing field is not yet level for women in science. As an undergraduate and graduate student in an era when discrimination was supposedly over, women’s liberation was an established movement, and laws had been passed to chip away at discriminatory practices, I frankly didn’t expect any problems and I didn’t notice any. True, I was usually the only woman in my physics classes but at some level, I reveled in the distinction. (Even as a kid I had been motivated by the idea of being the “first woman,” as in first woman astronaut or first woman president. The first of those took place long after it should have, and we’re still waiting for the second.) But at first I didn’t detect any discrimination and I didn’t particularly feel the need to network with other women in science. When I see young women today with those attitudes, I find myself hoping that in their case, it will be true, by the time they are my age, that they have suffered no discrimination – it might happen, especially in Astronomy, which is more female-friendly than Physics. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be oblivious, as I was – it probably kept me from dissipating energy fighting the machine.

But it was inevitable I would take up “the cause.” As a postdoc, the lack of women started to bother me. Where were the other women who had gotten physics degrees? At MIT, I was the only female postdoc in space science, out of dozens. Meanwhile, people had been telling me for years that, as a woman, I would benefit (the implication was, unfairly) from affirmative action – I should have no trouble getting into grad school, getting a postdoc, getting a faculty position, whatever – because all the universities would be eager to hire women. When people say this today, as they often do, I have to laugh. I sure do wish it were true but 30 years in physics and astronomy have shown me, instead, the huge pile of female talent that goes wasted every year. Fewer women are sought after as speakers, assistant professors, prize winners, than men of comparable ability. I have seen talented women ignored, overlooked, and sometimes denigrated to the point where they abandon their dreams. It sounds harsh but I simply report what I have seen. Men, too, leave the profession, but the numbers don’t compare. The percentage of scientists who are women drops at every level, until there are too few women to make a statistically significant measurement.

Hmm, sorry, this has turned into a lecture. Didn’t mean to do that. So let me keep it simple: there is discrimination, and it is done by all of us, men and women both, quite unconsciously for the most part. There is a large body of research in the social science literature (which, unfortunately, natural scientists rarely read) documenting the natural tendency of all of us – people raised in a society where men dominate leadership roles in most fields – to undervalue women. I hope young women don’t experience what I did – and there’s a good chance they won’t – but every young woman or under-represented minority scientist should learn about this “unconscious bias” so that, should they ever find themselves getting discouraged or feeling inadequate as scientists, they will correct for the effect of a harmful environment and recognize their own considerable achievements and talents. Or just call me! I’ll be happy to try to reassure them. It’s probably not them, it’s that they are trying to do science in an environment that is unwittingly toxic.

  • Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?

I have definitely had role models, although often I didn’t recognize it at the time.

My father was a Professor of Chemistry at Tufts University and my mother had been trained as a zoologist. They met at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where they were docents (my mother used to give presentations on the “invisible woman,” a transparent human form whose internal organs and systems were visible) and where both were students at the University of Chicago. Years after the decision to study science, I realized that living with two scientist parents, I couldn’t help but think like a scientist. Much as I enjoyed other subjects like English or History, the scholarship in those fields felt too arbitrary, whereas science has as its focus Nature, which is what it is. That is, scientists may form hypotheses about Nature but they cannot choose what to believe – they simply discover it from observation.

My thesis research was done as a member of the X-ray astronomy group at Goddard, where my de facto advisor was Richard Mushotzky, now at the University of Maryland. My first postdoc at MIT was in Claude Canizares’s group. Like my father, both Richard and Claude were important role model for how to be a professor, mentor students, and run a research group.

I have mentioned male role models (my dad, Mushotzky, Canizares) – they definitely taught me how to be a professor – but the women were probably more important just because there were so few. They taught me how to keep going: Marie Curie, Helen Crawley, Anne Kinney, Vera Rubin, Margaret Burbidge, Andrea Dupree, Martha Haynes.

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

I don’t know. If it’s something I can imagine, it’s probably not very different from what we know/understand now. The most interesting question is probably something I can’t even think of. Take Hanny’s Voorwerp as an example: Galaxy Zoo volunteers found this, not professional astronomers. Who knows what you guys will come up with next? I can’t wait to see.

This post completes our She’s an Astronomer series on the Galaxy Zoo Blog run in 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.). In total we’ve interviewed 16 women involved in Galaxy Zoo – 8 zooites (or volunteers) and 8 researchers (or professional astronomers). All of the interviews were conducted in English, but we also posted native language translations for 4 of the particiants (Spanish, German and Dutch).

Here’s the full list of interviews:

Hope you’ve enjoyed it. I still plan to write some roundup posts summarizing the series if I can find time here in baby land!

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!

5 responses to “She's an Astronomer: Meg Urry”

  1. George G. Kountouris says :

    I am an amateur researcer in astrophisics and cosmology issues, and i felt enthusiast for your research in supermassive black holes: how and when they grew, how they inject power to their surroundings, and how they interact with their host galaxies. I worked on a similar project for university of Athens, department of phisics & astronomy. Now and beyond my other researches i am a zooite and, in many casies, i want to say more thinks in “classifying galaxies”

  2. B.RAMESH RAJ says :

    prof meg urri authority on astronomy particularly the black holes has proved that a womann’s mind is more penetrating than men when applied on an subject.who says women are not equal to men.she exceled many men.

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