The first woman tenured by Yale’s Physics Department is about to become its first female chair, following University President Richard Levin’s Wednesday evening announcement naming Meg Urry to the post.
Urry, praised for her scholarship as well as her efforts to support women in the sciences, will replace outgoing chair Ramamurti Shankar, who has served in the position for the past six years. Her term will last for three years beginning this July.
Shankar said he has already begun to discuss the chair’s responsibilities with Urry. He said it is a positive sign that Urry will be Yale’s first female chair in a historically male-dominated field, but what really matters is her ability to perform her role.
“At this moment, independent of gender, she is the best person to do all the things the department needs to do,” Shankar said. “If she happens to be a woman, then that’s great.”
Urry said the department is already on a promising trajectory thanks to the work of the previous chairs, and that she welcomes the opportunity to lead the department.
“I’m very gratified by the confidence of the administration and my colleagues,” Urry said. “I am looking forward to the challenge.”
Although Urry said she does not foresee any major changes to the department in the near future, she would like to concentrate on promoting certain areas of research and expanding the innovative teaching methods that are currently being used in some introductory classes.
Urry has been a vocal proponent of increasing the number of women in the sciences. She had organized national meetings on women in astronomy in 1992 and 2003 and, in 2002, led the U.S. delegation to the first international meeting on women in physics in France.
“There is an increasing number of women going into physics across the country,” Urry said. “In the past it perhaps had an aura of not being female-friendly, but I think that’s gone.”
The recent addition of several female professors to the physics faculty may serve as an inspiration to undergraduates, she said. In addition to Urry, there are three female junior professors out of a faculty of 28.
Pan Pan Fan ’08, a physics major, said that as chair, Urry will be in a better position to provide support for females in the major. She said while she does not believe she is disadvantaged as a female student, it is helpful to have role models on the faculty to offer advice.
“I think it’s a great change and I think it sets an example to undergraduate physicists,” Fan said.
Physics major Jonathan Bittner ’07 said he is very pleased that Urry was selected to be the new chair, as she will be an excellent spokesperson for the department and the major.
“She is really one of the better physics professors I’ve had and is a great resource whenever I’ve asked her for things outside of class,” Bittner said.
But physics major Andy Gisler ’08 said he thinks it is unfortunate that the department is losing Shankar as its chair.
“[Shankar] was good at bringing the Physics Department to other people,” Gisler said. “I haven’t had much contact with [Urry] but she doesn’t seem as approachable.”
Urry also serves as director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.