Working Life

Following my lucky star

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Science  09 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6317, pp. 1346
DOI: 10.1126/science.354.6317.1346

About 30 years ago, while lunching with science faculty members during a campus visit, I was asked to what I attributed my success. My spur of the moment reply, “The ability to write and speak easily and well,” surprised them. But I answered this way because many of the activities I engaged in during my 21-year career running NASA's astronomy program—justifying projects to my supervisors, Congress, and the Bureau of the Budget; meeting with the research community to spark interest in the possibilities of observations from space; speaking to lay audiences to excite them about basic science—required that I present my case clearly and concisely. I still believe that communication is important. But now that I've had more time to reflect, I realize that perseverance—or stubbornness—and a certain amount of luck were equally important.


“I am glad I ignored the … people who told me that I could not be an astronomer.”

When I was a girl, women were not supposed to be scientists. When I asked my high school guidance counselor for permission to take a second year of algebra, she sneered, “What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?” The college environment was similar. If the dean of women could not dissuade a girl from majoring in science or engineering, she had nothing more to do with her.

My first bit of encouragement came in my third year of college, when the physics department chairman said to me, “I usually try to talk women out of majoring in physics, but I think maybe you might make it.” In graduate school, it was clear that the faculty did not like educating women. But I am glad I ignored the many people who told me that I could not be an astronomer. I have had a wonderful career in a field that I love.

As for luck, in my late 20s, when I was working as an instructor at the University of Chicago, I observed a star that had unusual and completely unexpected emission spectra. I published a two-page note about it, then continued with my attempt to determine whether the composition of stars depends on their location in the galaxy.

I realized that, as a woman, I had little chance of getting tenure in an astronomy research department. So, to stay in astronomical research, I changed my specialization and accepted a position in the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). Three years later, I was one of three Americans invited to the dedication of an observatory in Armenia. It turned out that I had been invited because the director of the new observatory was intrigued by my note about the anomalous star. I was a replacement for another invitee, so I had only 4 weeks to get permission from the naval hierarchy to go on the trip. As I carried my papers from office to office, many people ended up hearing that I was going. After my return, NRL leaders asked me to give a talk about my trip and later to give a series of astronomy lectures. As a result, I became widely known.

When NASA was formed 2 years later, most of the science section came from NRL. The leaders of this group, who knew me because of my trip, asked whether I knew anyone who wanted to set up a program in space astronomy, which I interpreted as an invitation to apply. I was hesitant to leave research, but the possibility of setting up a program that I thought would influence astronomy for decades to come was more than I could resist. I got the job and began to develop a program of 20 satellites, culminating in the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as many rockets and instruments on manned missions, all of which are sources of pride.

We now know that the star that changed my life is in the unusual state in which I found it for just about 100 days every 10 or 15 years. So, in some ways, much of my success can be traced back to my luck in seeing it when I did. But equally important was that I recognized that it was interesting, and that I took advantage of the opportunities that my stroke of luck brought my way.

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