Thursday, February 26, 2009

My Role Model: Vera Rubin

The theme of this month's Scientiae Carnival is Role Models.

Ever since grad school, I've named my computers after pioneering women in astronomy: Maria (Mitchell), Caroline (Herschel), Cecilia (Payne-Gaposchkin), Henrietta (Swan Leavitt), Annie (Jump Cannon). (Some of these women were real life human computers.)

So perhaps it's no surprise that my role model is yet another pioneering woman in astronomy: Vera Rubin. She became an astronomer in an era when few women were even working out of the home. She discovered dark matter. She has four children, all of whom are now scientists themselves and raising their own families.

I had the good fortune to spend my first postdoc at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where Vera still comes in almost daily, despite being retired. My first week there, she strolled into my office and introduced herself in a very friendly way, saying she "liked to meet all the new postdocs." Meanwhile, my mind was gibbering, "it's Vera Rubin! It's Vera Rubin!!" In my time at Carnegie, we ate many meals together at Lunch Club, shared many stories about raising children, talked about the obstacles that women in astronomy have faced over the years and still face today, and even talked about science once in a while. I learned that while Vera is a kind and gentle soul, she is tough as steel under her grandmotherly exterior and will fight tooth and nail against any perceived injustices.

I admire Vera for many things: for doing ground-breaking science, for raising a wonderful and loving family, for having the chutzpah stand up to nay-sayers, and for just being a nice person.

Someday, I will probably name a computer after Vera, but given my criteria for naming computers, I hope it won't be for a long long time.

Who is your role model?