Johns Hopkins University

Spring 2008
Vol. 5, No.2


The Brain Explained

At the Helm of American University

>Physics' Female Role Model

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Physics’ Female Role Model

Tapped last July to become chair of the physics department at Yale University, Meg Urry PhD '84 has joined but a handful of female physics chairs at major research universities in the U.S.

Urry is a renowned astrophysicist who studies massive black holes, which are a million to a few billion times the mass of the sun and thought to be at the center of every galaxy. She is also the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy and the director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

These are great achievements for someone who never spent much time planning her career in physics--perhaps due to a lack of female role models. "I was a woman in a field where there were no women," Urry says. One graduate mechanics course at Hopkins sticks out in her memory: The professor used to address the class as "Gentlemen and Meg."

Urry earned her PhD from Hopkins in 1984, completed a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, and then landed her first faculty job in 1990 as an astronomer at the Homewood campus' Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which runs the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA. In 2001, Yale hired her, the physics department's first female tenured faculty member.

The job at Yale has rejuvenated her love of teaching. She has worked on revising the Yale physics curriculum and on implementing new interactive teaching methods, including an electronic student polling system.

She also gets to be the role model she never had. She remembers a couple of years ago, when a young woman came into her office and said, "I want to be just like you." Urry says she was flattered by the comment, but she also knew it had a greater meaning. "I thought, 'Look at that. She has someone to look at that she could imagine being. She can have that ambition.'"