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Meg Urry

I have been an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) since 1987. STScI carries out the science program of the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA. My scientific research concerns active galaxies, which are galaxies with unusually luminous cores that are likely powered by very massive black holes. To understand these objects, I make observations throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to infrared-optical-UV light to X- and gamma-rays, using satellite experiments and ground-based observatories. My work on active galaxies focuses on some of the most energetic and catastrophic phenomena known in the universe, and in recent years I have identified one of the principal causes of this extreme activity: relativistic jets probably formed in the vicinity of supermassive black holes at the heart of active galaxies.

In addition, I head the STScI Science Program Selection Office, which solicits HST observing proposals from the international astronomical community and oversees their review and final selection. We do this on a yearly cycle; last year (1995) we called for proposals in June, sending out a thick package of documentation on telescope and instrument capabilities, guidelines for proposing, and additional information. In response, we received over 1000 proposals by the deadline, September 15. These were sent to approximately 100 proposal reviewers --- well-known astronomers from all over the world --- who then met at STScI in November to determine the HST observing program for Cycle 6 (observing dates July 1996 through June 1997). Letters of approval and rejection were sent to proposers in December; the approved programs require a second proposal submission (with much more details about the specific observations), due in the February/March 1996 time frame. Meanwhile, this January we in SPSO began preparing for the next cycle, writing documentation (and Web pages) describing the new proposal procedures.

I have also maintained a long interest in the issue of women in science, and I was the chief organizer of the 1992 conference on Women in Astronomy which led to the Baltimore Charter (visit our Web page)

I decided to be an astronomer much later than many of my colleagues --- really not until I applied to graduate school in my senior year at college. I was always interested in science, and found physics very challenging, but was also attracted to mathematics and chemistry (not to mention English, history, languages, ...) Following my junior year at college (Tufts University), where astronomy was a very minor part of the physics department, I spent a summer as a student intern at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. That was my first real contact with astronomy. It was there that I learned how interesting and how much fun astronomical research could be. The people were fun, too. I saw science not as a solitary pursuit but as a group activity, one that was social as well as rigorous.

The following year, I applied to graduate schools in astronomy and physics, and ended up planning to go in the fall to the Johns Hopkins University department of physics and astronomy, probably to pursue astronomy but still perhaps going into high energy physics or some other field. In the summer before graduate school, I worked with an X-ray astronomy group at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard. More interesting science, more fun! This confirmed that when I went to Johns Hopkins, I should look seriously into doing astronomy. I later got summer jobs at the nearby Goddard Space Flight Center working with the X-ray astronomy group. This led directly to my thesis research, and the combined scientific excellence and low-key friendliness of that group is probably the reason I got through the stresses and pressures of graduate school.

In my experience, college classes, while useful, were never as important as on-the-job experience. What I know and use now in my work, for example, has completely replaced the dated information from my early training. The important thing is the approach, and the constant learning of new skills and constant improvements in understanding.

The most interesting part of the job is learning new things, making progress toward understanding our universe. Sometimes that gets lost under the day-to-day minutiae, which can be very absorbing and also at times very boring. But the new thoughts, the new ideas, the exercising of one's brain --- those are what makes it all worthwhile.

I didn't do anything as a kid, frankly, that prepared me for this job. I enjoyed school, was always interested in every subject, advanced in mathematics at every opportunity (which in retrospect, was very important, though I didn't think about it at the time). I never liked science fiction, unlike many of my colleagues. I liked reading and writing a great deal, and I think that has helped me in writing scientific papers and in the communications needed to support the HST project. When I was quite young, in 3rd grade or so, I read a lot of biographies, including some of famous women --- doctors, scientists, pioneers. Quite frankly, the hardest part of getting to where I am in my career today has been developing the confidence that there IS a role for me, for women, in science, and in overcoming the insidious training I had, as does any girl in our society, to be a quintessentially female: to be self-effacing, to avoid "bragging," to support others even at the expense of taking appropriate credit oneself --- all wonderful, polite things, but very much at odds with the dominant scientific culture today, at least in the U.S. Reading about successful women, especially in fields where they had to fight to establish their right to be there, was a great morale boost and a great support. Finding a few women ahead of me and more in my peer group and even more coming up behind, has been critical to my staying in astronomy.

My chemistry teacher, Miss Crawley, at Winchester High School in Massachusetts was very important in attracting me to science in the first place. Before that, science was probably the least of my interests. Later, as I started college, my parents, and particularly my father, were extremely influential, suggesting that I take physics (something I might not have thought to do without a push) and always encouraging me. In retrospect, my sisters and brother and I were taught as children to think in a logical, methodical way. I always thought everyone did that! but now I recognize my idea of "normal" as a very standard scientific approach: what do we know? what are the options? what further information do we need to find out in order to figure out the problem? And so on. So my parents really prepared me to be a natural scientist.

I think it's really important to have a life besides a career. I like science a lot, but it isn't the most important thing. My family is -- I have two adorable daughters, Amelia, who is almost 5, and Sophia, who is just over 2 years old. I love them more than it is possible to explain. It's tough to manage the family plus job sometimes, and the only reason I can is because my husband, who is an astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, is an equal partner in our marriage. To young girls who want a career of any kind I would say: marry the right guy! I am really surprised sometimes when I hear intelligent young women agreeing to shoulder the greater part of the burden, agreeing to subordinate their careers and aspirations to those of the men in their lives, for no reason other than that is the way it is always done or that is the way their husbands and boyfriends have assumed it will be. I hope young girls grow up valuing their dreams and their futures as much as young boys do.

Favorite pasttimes: I get a lot of exercise --- usually on a stationary bike and/or doing weight lifting, first thing in the morning, before everyone else is up (there isn't any other free time!). When the weather is nice, we really like to go bicycling. My husband and I did a lot more before the kids were born, with long rides almost every weekend. The girls aren't so keen on being taken on long rides, but we still try to get out when we can. We bought a tandem bicycle and a kiddie trailer, so the four of us often go as a unit to a nearby state park. We get a lot of stares! I also read a tremendous amount, mostly current or classic fiction --- we make trips to the library a weekly family activity. The girls now love reading as much as we do. It's wonderful to watch Amelia read to her sister Sophia.

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