When Meg Urry got to Yale University in 2001, she became the first woman ever to receive tenure by the physics department in Yale history. She went on to serve as Department Chair from 2007 to 2013 and as the director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, a position she continues to hold today. Outside of the university, she is the President of the American Astronomical Society. WKND sat down to talk with her not just about her passion for astronomy, but also her passion for gender equity in the sciences.
Q: What does your research focus on?
A: My research concerns supermassive black holes that are at the center of galaxies. We know now that pretty much every galaxy has a very massive black hole at its center, and almost certainly those black holes have grown over the many billions of years of the universe’s evolution. The biggest black holes were formed early and they grew really fast and they stopped growing early, as well. The smaller black holes are the ones that are growing now. What we’ve been doing for the last 15 years is surveying black holes to see when they grew and what they did to the galaxies around them.
Q: What value do you think there is in studying black holes?
A: Well, you could even ask a more cynical question: “What good is it? Once you’ve learned this stuff, how did it help me?” because sometimes people ask that.
First of all, the search for knowledge itself — irrespective of what that knowledge could be used for to change people’s lives — is just a human imperative.
Beyond that, a lot of what we learn seems far removed from daily living on Earth, but there are many things in the past that came up serendipitously in research. This, too, has happened in astronomy: for example, the existence of dark energy was a sort of accidental discovery. It indicates that there is a huge piece of physics that we don’t understand: Most of the universe is made up of dark energy, and we didn’t know it existed until 1998.
And then the third thing is that astronomy is attractive to students and to the public. It unites us around common questions — how did we get to be here, where did we come from, how is it that the world works — these are universal questions that astronomy tries to address.
Q: What inspired you to pursue astronomy in the first place?
A: Many of my colleagues were astronomers as kids, but I didn’t decide until I was almost done with college — I was a physics and math major. It was that summer job at the radio astronomy observatory: there were two things about it. One, it just boggled my mind that I could look at these tiny bits of light and figure out what was billions and billions of light years away — and it was also mind-boggling that you could get paid to do that! And the second thing — I only realized this much, much later — is that compared to the physics departments I was in, astronomers were much cooler. They were very fun, they hung out together, they played volleyball — and there were more women. There were a lot more than in the physics department, where you were typically the only one.
Q: In addition to your work in astronomy, you also address gender equity in astronomy and science in general. What led you to take up this issue?
A: I was quite late in coming into this issue. When I was in college, I was the only woman physics major in my year, I was the only woman in my graduate school class. It was a time when women were breaking into everything, and I felt that it wasn’t that the system was broken, it was that there hadn’t been women wanting to [study physics]. Well, that was of course ridiculous, but that’s how I thought about it.
When I was a postdoc, I started noticing that women were not really getting the same kinds of things. There was this cognitive dissonance because everybody told me that because of affirmative action everyone will be trying to hire me, and nobody was trying to hire me in particular — believe me, people were not bending over backwards to hire me.
And, once I was on the faculty, I could see how women were so discriminated against: It’s really shocking, actually. For example, you see a woman job candidate give a talk, and people would come out of the talk saying, “How much of that talk was her work?” And then a guy would give a talk, and they would come out of it saying, “That guy is just brilliant!”
The playing field for women and minorities is not level — they don’t have the same opportunities and advantages, and it is both unfair and very bad for science. Over the last 50 years, U.S. science in all fields has been homogenizing. We love to work with a graduate student who is just like us, so we’ve homogenized the thinking. You end up with a bunch of people who can’t come up with new ideas because they’re all the same person. In order to do good science, we need more different ways of approaching problems. If you are with people who agree with you all the time, it’s very pleasant, it’s very relaxing, but you don’t actually learn a lot because you all know the same things. When you’re with people you disagree with, it can be unpleasant, but things that you accepted as sort of obvious get challenged, and you learn.
Q: How have you tackled gender equity?
A: My first job was at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA. By 1990, there were 60 faculty at this institute, and one of them was a woman. This was at a time when women had been getting at least 15 percent of the Ph.D.s, so I started saying that this is just not right. There were guys who were barely competent who were getting promoted and lionized. So, I organized a conference on women in astronomy — the first ever — and we had a two-day meeting and it changed the field. We wrote this manifesto called the Baltimore Charter. At the time it was seen as a totally radical document, and it started people thinking about the issue a lot more.
Nowadays, I give a lot of talks. Everywhere I go, if I give a colloquium somewhere, I will ask if there a group that would be interested in meeting with me, a group of women in physics, and if they would like a talk about it. A lot of what I talk about is on unconscious bias: that’s the term for people having prejudices without realizing them. There’s a lot of data about it, there are a lot of experiments, so talking about that really goes over well with science audiences.
Q: If you could give some advice to young female scientists, what would it be?
A: I think number one is that you need to know that the playing field is not level and that it’s biased against you. Everyone’s going to be telling you the opposite, they’re going to be telling you that you have an advantage over the guys and it’s not true. It’s very demoralizing if you don’t know that: If people tell you that you’re going to have every advantage and no evidence of that emerges then you’re going to think you’re a total failure!
A second piece of it has to do with confidence, for all the same reasons. Women constantly get checked where men get promoted. The best way to work on your confidence is to network with other women. Find a group where you feel really at home and comfortable and you can support each other and help each other because it may not be coming from somewhere else. In my experience, that networking among women has been the most powerful thing in helping women advance in science.