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?


Becky said...

Oh, I love Vera Rubin! She is such a class act. I've met her on two occasions (separated by about 7 years). The first time was when I was a senior in college and on an observing run at Kitt Peak. The post-docs I was with (one of whom is a contributor to this blog!) found out that she was at another telescope, so they called her up and we swung by to say hi. She talked about the work they were doing, showed us the data they were getting, and asked me about how I got into the field.

We ran into her again the next day in the cafeteria, and she smiled and greeted us by name. I totally plotzed that she took the time to remember my name (and the aforementioned postdoc has teased me ever since).

On the role model side, I have a close friend from high school a year older than me, who is pursuing a career in environmental science. In college, I watched her take summer internships around the country, and I think that gave me the courage to do the same thing. All our other friends were taking summer jobs in our hometown, and couldn't quite understand why we weren't coming home for the summers. Now I watch her balance career and family.

Anonymous said...

I saw your post in the carnival this month! I wanted to come over here and agree that Vera Rubin is a fantastic and inspiring role model. I was a summer intern at CIW many years ago, and she came to lunch and told us all about her life (this was before she retired). She's been so involved with encouraging young women in science. I'm glad to hear she's still coming in every day in her retirement, and that she's still such an inspiration!

Anonymous said...

What I love most about "some" well-known scientists/biologists is how they interact with "small" people like post-docs and PhD students. I admire their attitude in talking to students though we're just students, and we are not "on par" with them.

Many scientists or people in general aren't like that. They will only be nice to people whom they think can help them one day. They will not pay attention to grad students, and they definitely do not see the need to make post-docs comfortable.

These people, I think, aren't the real deal :)