August 27, 2012

Ideator: Yale scientist opens doors for women

Photo / CNN
Photo / CNN
Yale’s Meg Urry has become a popular TV commentator on science as well as being a role model for women in the field.

When Meg Urry was in graduate school studying physics at Johns Hopkins University, she was often the only woman in a room full of male students and professors. Today, nearly 30 years later, she is Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University and chair of its physics department, and a few things have changed.

“Right now, I have one male and three female postdoctoral students working with me, and many days there will be 10 women sitting around the table with one or two guys,” she said. While women still hold only about 12 percent of physics faculty positions nationwide, “the picture is quite different.”

Drawing more women and minorities into science is one of Urry's great passions, along with her own research on the growth of black holes and how they affect the galaxies that surround them. Her curiosity about black holes came about accidentally through a grad school assignment. “I thought they were fascinating,” she said. “Many of us think of a job as something you have to do, but to me, it's really fun to think about black holes in the middle of the universe, so I thought, 'I'll just keep doing this as long as someone pays me for it.”

Nearly three decades later, Urry is still endlessly fascinated by what exists outside the Milky Way. “When you're looking at very distant galaxies, in a way we're really doing archaeology,” she said. “We're looking at the history of the universe at all times because it took the light from those galaxies billions of years to reach us. The data we collect is just a few bits of light from really distant objects, so you get these little hints and try to come up with a picture that's consistent.”

Urry's national reputation as a physicist and astronomer, along with her status as an advisor to NASA, has prompted media outlets including CNN to tap her as a resource for information for stories on the new Mars rover, among other scientific developments. Like the name of the rover, her own research is primarily prompted by natural human curiosity.

“It's hard to pinpoint any particular applications for my research,” Urry said. “I can't promise it will ever be useful. It's mainly a curiosity-driven quest to understand the universe as it is today.”

Still, Urry points out that many discoveries in physics have found surprising practical applications dozens of years after they were made. For example, when quantum mechanics was discovered more than a century ago, it had no particular real life application, but today it is the force behind all pieces of modern electronics.

Bradley Peterson, professor and chairman of astronomy at Ohio State University and a fellow member of the NASA Advisory Council's Science Committee, has known Urry since 1976 and is an admirer of both her scientific research and her continuing crusade to draw more women into science careers.

“The reason Meg is so effective is that she has credibility because she is a first-rate scientist,” Peterson said. “Most people with her record of public service don't have the same record of scientific achievement, but she's actually out there doing it.”

As she works to bring more females into the sciences, Urry is bothered by the lack of confidence many young women feel in their ability to succeed in such challenging fields as physics and chemistry. Traits frequently attributed to women such as a knack for consensus building and collaboration “are needed in a world that's increasingly driven by science and technology. If science is going to move forward, it has to have diverse voices, and people who think differently shouldn't be made to think they don't fit in, because then you lose the value of different perspectives.”

Stephanie LaMassa is an example of Urry's influence on young female scientists. The opportunity to work alongside Urry was the primary consideration in La Massa's decision to apply for her position as a postdoctoral associate in Yale's Physics Department. “I'd been aware of her for years as both a scientist and a promoter of women in the field, so when there was a job opening, I jumped at it,” she said. “There have been times when I've been frustrated, and then I'll read something she's written and it's very encouraging. She's absolutely a role model for a lot of women.”

While she still continues to be enthusiastic about her investigation of black holes, Urry doesn't follow the lead of some of her fellow scientists by shaping her research around the prospect of fame and glory. “I've never, ever thought about winning the Nobel Prize,” she said. “My mother has thought about me winning it though.”

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