Before 2001, no woman had ever held tenure in the Physics Department, much less served as the department’s chair.

No one, that is, until Meg Urry.

When Urry, 52, left her senior post at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, for Yale in 2001, she arrived on Science Hill as Physics’ first female tenured faculty member.

By that time, she had already accumulated a substantial list of accolades. She was internationally renowned for her research on supermassive black holes. She had been awarded the Annie Jump Cannon award of the American Astronomical Society. And she had been elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

Then, just six years later, in January 2007, University President Richard Levin tapped Urry as Physics Department Chair.

And in her first year, the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy has yet to disappoint.

In interviews, students and faculty alike applauded Urry’s efforts to rethink her department’s teaching methods and raise its profile on campus. But one of her stand-out qualities, they say, is her cause. For years, Urry has devoted herself to attracting women and minorities to the sciences, a long-stressed goal of the Levin administration.

Not surprisingly, given her rapid rise through her department’s ranks, when Levin announced in late August that Yale College Dean Peter Salovey GRD ’86, would become University provost, Urry quickly became a fixture in discussions about Salovey’s successor. Can she break yet another barrier and become the first female dean of Yale College?

She certainly has a lot working in her favor. Urry is a scientist at a time when science has indisputably become a University priority; perhaps the biggest issue on the new dean’s plate, in fact, will be the expansion of Yale College up Science Hill, which Levin has insisted is partially an effort to promote undergraduate science. She has made innovating teaching a priority, leading the effort to use electronic clickers to make large science lectures more interactive. And, as a member of the steering committee of the Women Faculty Forum, she has worked with faculty members across departments.

But, Urry has only been at Yale for seven years and without ever having attended the University — unlike frontrunners Charles Bailyn ’81 and Jonathan Holloway GRD ’95 — she lacks the insider knowledge that may have pushed her candidacy over the top. Plus, she has only served as the department’s administrator for one year. And, since she is arguably the most recognized female science faculty member, at least among undergraduates, removing her from the Physics Department would leave a void that would take some time to fill.

One thing’s for sure: Urry is on top of her game. Even she knows it. In a 2005 Washington Post Op-Ed, “Diminished by Discrimination We Scarcely See,” Urry, who declined to comment for this story, explained the bias and barriers she overcame in her career.

“My science has never been better,” she wrote. “I bet some people say I got this job because I’m female. But now that I’ve been around awhile, I’m finally able to say, confidently, that I’m really great at this job. I’m lucky to be here at Yale, yes, but even more, they are really lucky to have me. The doubt is finally going away.”

And if she takes another step up the totem poll, to dean of Yale College, it’s likely that doubt will go away for good.

‘Challenging the status quo’

Apart from scientific research, Urry’s focus on women’s rights has defined her time at Yale. She spoke at the kickoff event of the Women in Science at Yale mentoring program in 2004, a group of over 250 undergraduates, graduates and post-doctoral fellows who aim to advance women in science by mentoring, networking and supporting. Her work in the Yale Women Faculty Forum has also helped pave the way for a closer look at gender inequalities throughout the University, and she spoke about issues of tenured women in the biological and physical sciences.

In 2002, Urry led the U.S. delegation to the first international meeting on women in physics in France, and in 1992 and 2003, she organized national meetings on women in astronomy. In 2006, she was elected a Fellow of the American Women in Science.

Her fight for recognition has been well received in the department, especially by another faculty member who says he has experienced discrimination for being a minority. Keith Baker, the only African-American physics professor at Yale, emphasized Urry’s success in dealing with the sensitive topic of diversity.

“I’m impressed with her consciousness about social issues, about diversity, about making sure there is equality for all people,” Baker said.

Her determination makes her the perfect person to be a proponent for questions about diversity as dean of Yale College, he said.

“She’s not bashful. She’s not squeamish about challenging the status quo,” Baker said. “She is willing to challenge the status quo in the name of increased diversity. Yale is a better institution because of it.”

Ramamurti Shankar, J. R. Huffman Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Urry’s predecessor as chair, further applauded Urry’s skills as an administrator and noted her commitment to consensus.

“She’s managed to shepherd us through a very difficult time without any conflict,” Shankar said.

Leadership, in and out of the classroom

But Urry, Shankar said, is perhaps more of a leader inside the classroom than out of it.

“I passed by her classroom, and I said, ‘What’s going on? There’s so much discussion and energy,’” Shankar remembers. “And then I found out it was Meg’s class.”

Urry’s student advisees paint a similar picture; her ability to connect with science students, both graduate and undergraduate, they said, is unusual.

Shanil Virani GRD ’10, a fifth-year Ph.D. student who has worked with Urry for the past three years, said he does not know any faculty member in astronomy who takes such an active role in undergraduate studies.

“She’s not one of those mad scientists you lock up in a bathroom because she can’t socialize with other people,” another doctoral candidate, Brooke Simmons GRD ’08 said, noting that Urry’s personality fits well with the image of the dean of Yale College as a student-friendly administrator.

As a teacher, Urry has demonstrated her leadership ability by starting initiatives such as the strategic plan to reorganize the Physics Department and the Go PsyCH tutoring program for undergraduates, both launched in 2007.

Still, some students and faculty question whether the role of dean is a good fit for Urry at this stage in her career.

One of her post-doctoral students, Carie Cardamone GRD ’10, who said she decided to come to Yale because of Urry’s reputation, noted that Charles Bailyn ‘81, another candidate for the deanship, might be a scientist better suited for the role.

Bailyn, she said, devotes more time to undergraduates, while Urry devotes more time to her research.

Shankar also mentioned that no departmental roles can prepare one for the deanship. Still, he praised Urry’s leadership thus far.

“I think she’s done really well [as chair], to the point where I give her unsolicited compliments,” he said.

If she is called upon for the job, members of the Physics Department say they will mourn her loss.

“She is a perfectly reasonable person to have on that short list,” physics and astronomy professor and physics Director of Undergraduate Studies Peter Parker said. “But I would be sad to see her leave the department.”