News

Debra Elmegreen, professor of astronomy at Vassar, elected president of the American Astronomical Society

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY-Debra Elmegreen, the Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy at Vassar, has been elected the 43rd president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). She is the first AAS president from a liberal arts college in the 110-year history of the organization, whose membership includes approximately 7000 astronomers throughout North America.

A noted investigator of galaxies, Elmegreen will serve as president-elect of AAS from June of this year until May 2010, when she will assume the two-year presidency of the organization of professional astronomers, through 2012. She is succeeding Dr. John P. Huchra of Harvard University.

Elmegreen's passion for astronomy began at age five when she used to stargaze on clear nights. "I think its something deep within all of us, that on a nice night, we look at the sky, and say, ‘Oh that's great.' And for some of us, it's not just beautiful, but we wonder why it is like it is," she said.

Her curiosity meant she was "always building telescopes" through high school, and pursued her interest through college and graduate school where she was one of a few women who studied astronomy.

Like Maria Mitchell, the celebrated astronomer whom Vassar hired as its first professor in 1865, Elmegreen is a pioneer in her field. The first woman to graduate with a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from Princeton in 1975, Elmegreen also was the first woman to be awarded a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellowship for research at the Palomar Observatory in California.

Speaking of Mitchell's legacy, Elmegreen said she is "proud that this grand tradition that Maria started is still with us in all sciences at Vassar."

As chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from 1991-97, Elmegreen led efforts to advocate for women's rights in astronomy. She also served as chair of the Space Telescope Users' Committee from 2002-05.

Recently, Elmegreen was appointed by the National Academy of Sciences to the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey Committee, whose role will be to set national astronomy goals and priorities for the next decade.

"It is no accident that of all those talented faculty, it was Debbie who was elected as AAS president. I have worked with her both at the telescope and in the classroom, and I can't imagine anyone matching her particular combination of intellectual vitality, professional drive, and just plain niceness," said Fred Chromey, a professor of astronomy at Vassar.

Elmegreen came to Vassar in 1985, where she is now chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Her academic interests include star formation and the structure of galaxies, and she has published over 200 research publications. Her images of interacting galaxies, taken through the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, were selected by the Space Telescope Science Institute Heritage as image of the month in November 1999 and as the astronomy picture of the day in 1999, 2004, and 2008.

INTERVIEW WITH DEBRA ELMEGREEN

When did you realize that astronomy was something that you wanted to do for the rest of your life?

I was interested in it very early on. I think probably by the time I was 10, I was pretty sure that was what I wanted to do.

What was your experience doing astronomy in college like?

I was in the third class of women at Princeton. In my generation, it was not the mainstream for women to do astronomy. So about 10 to 15 percent of astronomers my age are women, whereas among younger people going into astronomy now, it is about 25 percent women. Things have changed a lot.

What is the situation like at Vassar?

Well, Vassar's wonderful of course. America's first female astronomer was Maria Mitchell, who was one of our first professors, so there has always been a history of women studying astronomy here. In fact, it initially was a required course and all the women took astronomy. Now, about 50 percent of the astronomers in our department are women, which is great because that's much higher than the national average.

What is the American Astronomical Society?

It's the professional organization for astronomers in North America. It has about 7000 members, which includes most of the astronomers in the country. The purpose of AAS is to foster scientific exchange and interaction between astronomers, the public and the government.

What is the relevance of astronomy in today's world?

The research we do has connections with everyday life. It puts us in context-who we are and why we are here. There are also direct technology spin-offs from our research. For example, the same image processing techniques used to analyze light from distant galaxies have been applied to CAT (computer-aided tomography) studies of the human body.

What interests you most about astronomy?

I think that, particularly when life gets difficult, it is nice to step back from the chaos of the world and see there's something bigger than each of us. So if you think just in terms of "Am I going to get fired today or not?" "Can I afford the gas prices that just went up?" and all these day-to-day things, you can get dragged down. But astronomy puts it all in a broader context.

What are your hobbies?

I'm a die-hard Yankees fan, so watch out Red Sox we're going to beat you this year! That's my passion, and about the only thing that I have time for outside of work. Astronomy is still my hobby too, so even though it's my work, I really love it, so I end up doing it for a good bit of my time.

ABOUT THE AMERICAN ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY

The American Astronomical Society (AAS), established 1899, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. AAS aims to promote the advancement of astronomy and related branches of science. Its membership (~7,000) includes astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, geologists, engineers and others whose research interests lie within the broad spectrum of subjects that comprise contemporary astronomy (http://aas.org).

ASTRONOMY AT VASSAR COLLEGE

Maria Mitchell, who was America's first woman astronomer and the first director of Vassar's observatory, helped to shape the way astronomy is taught at Vassar. She was famous for pushing her students to think for themselves, do their own research, and come to their own conclusions. She believed that students work best when they are part of a supportive scientific community. (Mitchell's telescope is now on display at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC.)

The astronomy faculty at Vassar is committed to the same principles, and provides many opportunities to students in the department. The astronomy curriculum includes introductory and advanced astrophysics courses with topics covering planets, stars, interstellar matter, galaxies, and cosmology, and observational techniques (http://physicsandastronomy.vassar.edu/astronomy.html).

CLASS OF 1951 OBSERVATORY AT VASSAR

The Class of 1951 Observatory houses two of the largest telescopes in New York State, a 20-inch and a 32-inch one, which are housed in separate domes and are equipped with research-grade electronic cameras. The observatory also has three spectrographs and smaller telescopes that include a Coronado solar telescope and an historic 8-inch refractor. The Observatory supports Vassar coursework, public education, and professional research in astronomy. Ongoing research includes programs monitoring the brightness and colors of active galactic nuclei, and measuring the chemical abundances of unusual stars in the Milky Way.

Visitors from the community are welcome at the observatory for open nights on Wednesday nights from 9-11pm during the school year, weather permitting. If uncertain about weather conditions or the viewing schedule, please contact the Department of Physics and Astronomy at (845) 437-7340 before 4:30pm, or call the observatory at (845) 437-7679 after 8:45pm (http://physicsandastronomy.vassar.edu/observatory.html).

Individuals with disabilities requiring accommodations or information on accessibility should contact Campus Activities Office at (845) 437-5370. Without sufficient notice, appropriate space and/or assistance may not be available. Directions to the Vassar campus are available at www.vassar.edu/directions.



Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.


Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, February 25, 2009