Women in Science: Dr. Meg Urry

meg urry

Dr. Meg Urry is currently the President of the American Astronomical Society, was formerly on the Hubble space telescope faculty, and was chair of the Department of Physics at Yale University from 2007 to 2013. She double-majored in physics and mathematics at Tufts University, and then earned both an M.S. and a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins. She then conducted a postdoctorate at M.I.T.’s Center for Space Research. She is a strong and active advocate for women and minorities in science, especially in astronomy. Dr. Urry studies Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), and the relationship of normal galaxies to AGNs. Approximately two years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to meet her while she was giving a lecture at Wesleyan University (see my previous post about that), and talking to her again for this blog was an incredible experience.

  1. What was your best experience in a science class? Did you enjoy science as a child?

Ok, I’m going to disappoint you. Not particularly. I mean, if I think back to elementary school, middle school, and high school – well in high school I liked my chemistry class. In 10th grade I took Chemistry with Ms. Crawley, Helen Crawley, who is unfortunately is no longer with us. That really resonated with me. I had a great time in that class and maybe thought I wanted to be a chemist for a while but my father was a chemist and he said don’t do it so… But before that, I really liked everything. English, math, history, I liked it all a lot, and science was never the most interesting class. There were interesting bits, but probably my biggest memory was in 6th grade, or maybe it was math, but this teacher just sent me and this other guy out in the hall to do independent study because we were way ahead of everybody else for some reason, and it just seemed like science was always about memorizing. Maybe we’d occasionally go on an outing but we didn’t really talk about what was cool about science or what it was.

I did like astronomy things, but we never studied it in school. In 6th grade I think I made a model of the solar system on the blackboard, to scale, with the planets and everything. I have to say it wasn’t my favorite. And I have to say although I think when I got to college I learned that I think scientifically – and in some of my other classes the thinking was a lot more fuzzy and didn’t appeal to me – I was kind of picking my tribe in college, like who’s more like me. I really like books and reading and writing and I took this English class on purpose – I didn’t have to take it, it was a freshman seminar – and I picked the one with my favorite books and my favorite authors and it was so bad. It was so, so bad. That was the end of English in college. I realized that I like reading books but I don’t like reading them with an eye toward writing an essay about them, and also the guy who was teaching the class had nothing to add about anything we read. I think it was that with those classes, they have to have a lot of them, because they have to make space for a lot of people, so they end up pulling instructors from all over and I just got a bad guy.

But actually the class I remember most from my undergraduate teaching in terms of detail that we talked about was art history. I took an art history survey course, and that comes to me all the time. When I go to a museum I remember a lot of it. I don’t remember much of my science classes. I don’t remember much of my physics classes. I was always good at following what was happening, what the professor was saying, but it was the old days so all they would do is write on the board. And they’d sped all their time on derivations and they’d say “derive this from that” and I see why physicists like that, but I don’t really feel like that’s the salient part of the learning. It’s more about what is relevant and what is the behavior of this kind of equation and so I didn’t love it.

  1. Did you have any women in science/math you looked up to as a college student who helped you be sure that women could do science?

No, not a one. I didn’t know any! Looking back – well Marie Curie, that’s the one you hear about – you never hear about women scientists. When I was an undergraduate I never had a female teacher of math or science. In high school Ms. Crawley was a great role model, actually. She both knew her subject cold and ran the classroom well, and was sufficiently intimidating that you weren’t just a buddy automatically. I really liked her and I took AP Chemistry with her too. That class, that experience was a very positive one for me. And of course my father being a chemist. My parents were both trained as scientists, my mother was trained as a zoologist. So all of those influences that came before college were positive. In college I took physics. My father told me to take physics so I did. And I didn’t love it, I have to say. It’s very plain compared to biology. I always hated biology cause biology is a bunch of memorization and none of it made sense to me because they didn’t really understand anything. I suppose if I took it now 40 years later it would be more interesting. I didn’t love physics, but I did well.

Looking back I don’t think I understood anything because when I taught physics that’s when I went “oh! I get it now!” In high school I took a physics course, which I hated, and it was pretty terrible. Then when I took the second semester physics it wasn’t anything I had taken before, it was all E&M kinds of things, and they’re not intuitive and you don’t have a sense of them and so I was completely lost.

I remember watching the professor draw on the board. He drew this vertical line and he said, “This is an infinite plane of conducting metal into and out of the board.” And then he put a dot off to the side and said, “That’s a point charge, what’s the electric field?” And I’m thinking, “I could no sooner determine that than leap off a building and fly.” So I didn’t know what he was doing and he said, “Well, this is a hard problem to solve, let’s solve this different one to get the answer.” I understand this now, but he didn’t say it right or it didn’t get into my head. I didn’t understand why he could do that. The reason you can do that is that the electric field due to one charge on one side plus the electric field due to this other one on the other side equals the electric field of two charges on both sides. If he had said that, I don’t know, maybe I’d get it. But I didn’t, and I didn’t do well, and on my first exam I got like a 50%. It’s the lowest grade in my entire life, and I thought, “This just cannot be that hard. It can’t. These people are not smarter than I am, I have to be able to do this.” And I taught myself. I taught myself physics, and then it was kind of cool. It was like “oh, this is so clean, and everything comes from everything else and there’s all this symmetry,” and so then it really appealed to me. But, at the risk of offending my teachers, I think I learned physics in spite of all of them. I don’t think I ever got something from them that I found insightful. Maybe one exception in a waves class when he [the professor] talked about holography that was really interesting and he did a great job of it. But basically I had to reteach myself when I went to graduate school.

  1. How do you feel about the representation of women in your field at the moment? How might that be improved?

Well it’s kind of interesting. I just came back from a conference in Nashville, which was called Inclusive Astronomy, and it was addressing many of these same issues. I think one of the points that the organizers of the meeting would have made is that, and I think this is true, the progress that has been made since 1990 when I got my first tenure-track job is kind of remarkable. The numbers have changed tremendously. But it’s progress primarily for white women. And so if you look at people of color, certainly there’s more of them than there were in 1990, but the rate of increase is slow, the number of people of color getting PhDs in astronomy is very low, the number of women of color is just a small handful each year.

The caveat is always that people do astronomy in physics departments and so some of the statistics of astronomy, for example, are noisy because it’s a small number. I think its about 150 PhDs a year, and then the number that fit into smaller categories when you tease them out typically people of color are a few percent of the total, so that’s why you get down to one or two a year, maybe three or four. So you can’t really tell, except over a long time, what’s really happened.

That said, I think we have made some of the biggest progress not just in numbers but also in attitudes. In the early 1990’s when I was first getting going on my second career of advocacy, we were going to organize this big meeting about women in astronomy and it was the first ever such meeting and we didn’t really know what we were doing, to be honest. There was an organizing committee set up, which included a couple of senior white male astronomers, and I remember spending the whole first meeting of this committee on one thing, because one of them said, “well, I think this meeting should be about proving there’s a problem.” I thought, “Are you out of your mind? What do you mean is there a problem? We have 60 faculty and there’s like one or two women, and they were all hired in the modern era when discrimination is supposed to be over. This is ridiculous”. I learned something from that, which is when somebody says “prove x,” you have to show them the data. So we did start there, we started with the data, and since then we’ve always started with the data. People can’t argue with data. They can argue that your error bar is wrong or something, but that’s pretty much all.

So we did surveys of how many women there were in astronomy at every level, and in later surveys we added people of color. It’s always hard because departments don’t want to respond, and then they find it hard to categorize people, yadda yadda. But we did it, and we had data. But I would say you’d be hard-pressed to find an astronomy department where many in the faculty don’t know a lot about unconscious [implicit] bias, or about stereotype threat, which used to be a foreign concept and is now well-known. So a lot of the issues have been elucidated. When you look at the obstacles facing people of color, many of those obstacles are similar, like unconscious bias and stereotype threat.

There are many things that are different. When, for example, a white woman with a science job goes to the grocery store, she doesn’t have to worry about being followed cause she might shoplift. When I go to the food carts to buy a sandwich, I don’t have to worry that the guy selling them thinks I might steal his money. I say that because someone told me that story very recently. He was buying something at the food carts and noticed that the guy was watching him because he was near the cash bin. White women don’t typically have to deal with that, and people of color do. Or if you think about Native Americans in this country, first of all the high quality schools are not always there at the young ages, and then there’s much less or even no support for going to college.

This rang memory bells for me. One of the people at the conference was talking about how she has to keep explaining to her family that being a graduate student is a job, and she’s earning money, and she doesn’t need to go get a job. And I can remember visiting a friend whose husband used to routinely pull out the want ads and read me jobs I could get for more money than I was making as a graduate student. So there are all sorts of things that people of color, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, etc. face that white women just don’t face. And some of those solutions and ways to address that were different than what we did, so it’s not good enough to say, “Well let’s just do what we did before.” So it’s a mixed bag. In one case, astronomy departments are just much more involved than they were earlier, and that helps everybody.

It helps white men too, by the way. Making things more important and transparent and fair is good for everybody. But then we have to address some of these other problems like the absence of mentoring and the absence of role models, and then the tough life that people have all over America and how people are treated. I’ve thought often when I’m driving my car and I go through a yellow light or don’t come to quite a complete stop at a stop sign, I know that if I get stopped by a policeman that he’s not going to mistreat me, he’s not going to haul me out of the car and tell me to lie down on the ground. I can talk my way out of it because I have privilege, I have a standing. Partly it’s age, but mostly it’s being white. Sorry it’s such a long-winded answer but basically I think we’ve made a lot of progress, I think we need to make a lot more.

And I haven’t even mentioned people with non-binary gender identification or trans people. This is stuff that hasn’t been talked about until the last five years or so, and that’s crazy. And so I think we have to address those things. Some of it is new to many people who are in science, many of us are oblivious, so it’ll take some time but I think we’re doing well. There is an LGBTIQ working group right now in the AAS and frankly I’d love to make them a standing committee when they’re ready and they want to do that I’ll be happy to support that. I think we’re doing a good job of trying to address these issues, there are only 24 hours in the day and some people would like us to be doing more and moving faster and doing things in certain ways and I guess I would say I don’t think there’s one right way.

Let me make it personal. When I was younger, everything was much clearer, everything was black and white, and this is wrong, this is right, people should be doing this. And I think I was judgmental and kind of strict, like when someone said something wrong I would say, “oh, that’s not right, how could you, etc.” and now that I’m older I see that there are different ways of addressing things. I can think of a former colleague of mine who came to me once to talk to me about how he could increase diversity at his institution, and to be honest his level of understanding of the social science was pretty low, and his understanding of what had gone before and what had already been done was pretty low. And I think I kind of dismissed his effort cause he hadn’t educated himself, and I didn’t have the time to educate him. And now when I think about it I think, “he was trying to do something,” and I think at some level you have to harness all the energy that’s out there and if you spend all that energy trying to go down this narrow path of glory to fixing things, you’re really wasting your energy trying to get people to fit there. It’s kind of like how you manage a company. You don’t ask all the employees to be identical, it’s impossible. You look at them and say “what are they good at?” and you ask them to do that.

I think I’m much mellower now than I was then, and I think when I look at the young people today – and I never thought this would happen cause I was a kid in the 60s and there were hippies and revolution and anti-war protests and I thought I would never be anything less than radical – but I see that I am. There are people that are not happy with me at some level because I don’t use the words they’d like me to, I’m not willing to condemn certain people as racist, and I find myself in that sort of more conservative bin according to them, and it’s a bit of a culture shock. I’m not used to being accused of being the conservative person in a discussion.

So why am I babbling about this? So people can learn. One of the things I learned late in life that I should have learned a lot earlier is that when someone is annoying you, if you find that they’re irritating you, it’s probably because they’re telling you something that you don’t want to hear, and that means it’s something different than what you think, and therefore you should be listening. That doesn’t mean that they stop being annoying or irritating, but they probably have something to say that you should listen to.

So your original question was how are things going and what are we doing in the AAS. We have three diversity committees. The oldest is the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. Not long after that I think we had a Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, and just three years ago we started the working group for LGBT equality. I think part of an issue we have with that last one is that some astronomers aren’t ready to come out of the closet publicly and professionally, and we didn’t have a group come to us and say they wanted to start a working group, which is the standard way that they begin. I can remember people telling me that the CSWA (the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy) should address this issue and I was like “I don’t want to speak for a community that I’m not in, and I want that community to speak for themselves,” so people who identify as women in astronomy today don’t disguise who they are, so it doesn’t change anything if they go start a committee. But for someone who is gay, most of the people they work with may not know, and if they don’t want to come out and be visibly gay then it’s hard, so that’s why we formed that one without a specific request. It’s not that people are more biased against the LGBTIQ community, it’s because it took some time for people to feel comfortable in our society.

But that, in a way, kind of circles back to what I was saying. I think we have a different atmosphere now, and also in the country the advances in gay rights have been pretty amazing and wonderful, but in our community we have a lot more tolerance and good behavior than before. There are people who say stupid things. A little while ago Shri Kulkarnia made that stupid remark in an interview, I mean he thought it was funny but I thought it was stupid, about how astronomy for him was like “boys with their toys” and every woman with astronomy just went “uuuggghh.” And I responded with some tweets about famous women in astronomy and how great they were, but to be fair Shri has had plenty of women students and he’s definitely not one of these Tim Hunt kind of people who don’t want to work with women in the lab. But I think our community is pretty well evolved. It’s interesting to compare physics and astronomy because I kind of move back and forth between both worlds and the physics community is not anywhere near as educated but it’s happening. I can see that slowly people are starting to understand these issues and pay attention to them.

  1. Do you remember any times when someone implied that you couldn’t become a scientist? How did you deal with it? Can you think of any moments where you questioned yourself?

Oh yeah. A lot. I was a physics major in college, but summer after my junior year in college I went to work at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, and that was the most fun thing, it was great. I was working with this British guy who used to do Monty Python impressions in his office. So right of the bat there was no formal, strict behavior. I was working on his radio survey and identifying quasars. This was my first brush with supermassive black holes, although I didn’t know that’s what powered them at the time. But it was just so much fun, the work was fun, and thinking about the cosmos was fun, and the people were so friendly. We used to play volleyball, with the postdocs too, and we’d have cookouts and stuff, and so in retrospect I think I was influenced by the combination of the fun of the science plus the very relaxed and comfortable social atmosphere.

I think had I gone into high-energy physics, which I was thinking about in grad school, I would not have made it. I think it’s a different world and it’s not one that I would have thrived in. Well when I went back in the fall, I went to see my advisor, who was a physicist and I told him, “I had a great time, I learned a lot, I want to be an astrophysicist.” And his reaction? It was, “Oh, you have to be a genius to be an astrophysicist.” And not only that, but I was certainly the smartest physics major my year, and probably the best they’d seen in a few years. I don’t want to be snobby about it, there were other good people there, but what I’m trying to say is if he looked at the evidence I had to be the best or one of the best people he saw, so why was he saying that? He was basically saying I couldn’t make it. Also I don’t think I’m a genius, and wouldn’t even know how to define that, but I certainly had the hallmarks of one in terms of grades and exam scores. My point was that if he had looked at any kind of evidence he shouldn’t have said that to me. But it didn’t actually bother me that much in the end. At the time it was like, “ugh, that’s a really horrible thing for him to say,” but I mentioned it to my father who said, “oh he’s just a jerk, don’t pay any attention to him.” So that neutralized it. And my father was a professor there, so he really did know him and so that kind of neutralized that comment.

I remember too when I applied for my first tenure-track job I actually got a lot of offers, I had 4 and some were quite advanced. I did two post docs, so I had been done with my PhD for a while and several people wanted to hire me at the associate professor level and several said they would think of tenuring me if not immediately then early. So I went back to the place where I was a post doc, because they had offered me a job that was a much worse offer, and I went and talked to the director and to make a long story short he basically ignored me. When I finally tracked him down he said, “well we’re not going to change the offer,” and I said “well, what would you do, these offers are like 15% more salary with better benefits, vacation time,” and he said “well I’d take it if I were you.” And I said, “Ok, well I don’t think this is reasonable, people are supposed to match your offer.” And he said, “Well maybe you’re just not as smart as you think you are.” I’ve had other people tell me that I’m not a leader, that nobody would follow me. I’ve had people assume I’m too dumb to do stuff. It’s funny because I’ve never been dumb except when I’m tired and they don’t see that. I’ve never been dumb in front of people; I’ve always done well. To find out that people find that I’m not up to par is pretty funny.

Once a guy who was a post doc when I was a grad student told me I should go to a smaller college so I could be a big fish in a small pond. When I was younger and travelling, people would chat you up, and if I didn’t really want to be chatted up by that person I would tell them I was an astrophysicist because then they think it’s too hard to talk to you. If you say astronomer, which to me is exactly the same, it isn’t off-putting.

  1. What advice do you have for young women and girls who are hoping to pursue degrees and careers in science?

First of all, I say, “please do!” We definitely need more scientists and definitely more women. I do try to say that as far as I can tell it’s not perfectly equal opportunity yet, that the playing field is a bit tilted against women, but it’s getting better all the time and they may not encounter any problems, and I hope that’s the case. But if they do encounter obstacles, especially if they start feeling discouraged or like they don’t really belong in science, they should recognize that as the product of a toxic environment and atmosphere rather than something about their own aptitude for science. That’s the part that bothers me the most, and that I’m probably the most focused on.I’m trying to inoculate young women from being discouraged by these kinds of microagressions, which is the popular term now.

I’ll give you an example. My second post doc was back in Baltimore where I had done my thesis, but it was across the street in the Space Telescope Science Institute, so a different institute but the same town. The physicists would come over for lunch sometimes and so I found my advisor once one day in the hall and I stopped to tell him that I was pregnant with my first kid, and he said “oh, congratulations. Then he said, “I guess you want to have it all.” And I said “yeah!” and smiled and walked on down the hall but then I thought, he has two kids, like isn’t he having it all too? Why was that his reaction? And the answer is that there were no women in that time, I think there was only one in the department when I was a graduate student and that was still true when this happened. And she was the wife of another professor.

In fact, when I was a graduate student, the grad students would all talk about how she’d only been hired so they could get him too, and I accepted that as the truth without even thinking about it. They would say he was much better than she was. Later I thought, “why didn’t I question that?” because they write all their papers together, sometimes she’s first author, sometimes he is, but how did the students decide that? Even if you were trying to judge who was better, you couldn’t because they were on the same papers and doing the same work. It was just baldy sexist views.

  1. I hope this isn’t the case, but do you still personally encounter any discrimination even now that you’ve established yourself and you’re the President of the AAS. Do people still look past those achievements and question you about them or has it mellowed out more?

It has mellowed out. I will say I’m very fortunate. I’m a professor at a great university, I love it, I love teaching; I’m very fortunate. I’ve had a lot of privilege in my life; I went to a good high school, it was public but it was good, I had educated parents who supported and frankly pushed us. There was never any debate about whether we were going to college. I never lost energy thinking about if I was going to college. I think I started to have some disadvantage starting in college, because I didn’t go to one of the top schools as an undergraduate. I should have gone to Harvard or Yale that had more students that are like me, and I don’t think at the time there were that many students who were like me at all at Tufts. By like me, I mean that I was interested in educating myself. To me, college was this opportunity to learn about a million things, and I would take as many classes as I could and on top of that I remember going to the library and getting out music to listen to that I had never heard. I sort of gave myself a music appreciation course in my spare time and a literature course in my spare time. I read all of Thomas Hardy one year. Stuff like that. So I had this kind of intellectual bend, and I didn’t find that much of that there.

I think in general too there’s a lot of sexism anyways, and a lot of snobbishness about which college you went to and how prestigious it was, and I didn’t go to the top school, and I didn’t get into I think 5 or 6 of the 8 places I applied to. I only got into 2 graduate schools, I got rejected from the best, but it worked out fine. What I’m trying to say is however fortunate I am now; I didn’t get there on an easy glide path. There was no going to the best schools, getting the best post docs, and I think I encountered a huge amount of sexism and I think I still do. It’s much better than it was.

Just to give a concrete example, I was department chair for six years, and I was treated differently than my predecessors. Things that they had automatically done without any input from the faculty or guidance, suddenly we had to have discussions about, and people had to sort of try and steer me to do certain things. And frankly both of my secretaries commented on this. They said, “They really don’t treat you the way they treat the other chairs.” When you’re one person, you never know “is that behavior sexist or does that happen to everybody?” And indeed much of the stuff I’ve identified as harmful to women may just be bad behavior or bad climate for everyone; but women are more susceptible because they have fewer role models.

I didn’t know the name of any women astronomers until I was a post-doc. I’d never heard of any of them, and I seized on each one. Sorry, there was one I learned about as a grad student, and that name was precious to me. It’s actually Beatrice Tinsley, who was at the time a faculty member at Yale. But what happened when I was in grad school at John’s Hopkins was the guys were talking about – they were always trying to best one another – about how she got out of graduate school in two and a half years, so I’m going to do it that fast too. I was just thinking, “wow there’s a woman in astronomy and she’s at the top, she has this superlative role?” And later I found out much more about her and she was a huge inspirational person for me even though I never had the chance to meet her.

I’m sorry, I know this is a long-winded answer, but I would say we just don’t get away with stuff. When I was the negotiating for that job I was telling you about, I don’t know of anybody who didn’t get an offer matched when they said those guys offered me five thousand dollars a year more, or ten percent more, or fifteen percent more. But to women that happens all the time, or you get cut down or you’re told to stay in your place and it’s hard for people to do that to me now, but yeah they still do. For example, I’m not a member of the National Academies of Science. I certainly have done work of the quality that should allow me to be elected to the National Academy. I believe I’ve been nominated but I have not been elected, but there are other great people who haven’t been elected and many of them are men, so is it because I’m female, is it because I pissed people off when I was a young, radical, pushy, advocate for women, is it because they just overlooked me? I have no idea, I can’t tell.



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