How We Got Here and Where We Are Going: Meg Urry’s Insights into the Universe (including Inequality in STEM)

How We Got Here and Where We Are Going: Meg Urry’s Insights into the Universe (including Inequality in STEM)

Art by Catherine Zhang.

A few million light years away, a black hole at the center of a galaxy spins at immense speeds, turning matter into light; on the screen in front of us, the scientist who figured that out made an edgy joke about how terrible adulthood is. We sat (virtually) in Professor Meg Urry’s office, listening intently as she tells stories about her career, her research, and her life. Hanging on the wall were three framed pictures, including a black and white portrait of who appears to be Isaac Newton. Seems fitting for one of the most acclaimed astrophysics experts in the world. Throughout our discussion, the conversation kept returning to the same thought––what is the driving force behind science? For Urry, it is about bringing different ideas and perspectives into conversation with one another. It is about diversity and representation––who is at the table, what they brought, and how they got there. Urry’s own journey is a case study into the sociology of science.

Urry was born in St. Louis, MO, in 1955, but spent most of her childhood in West Lafayette, IN. Her father, a professor of chemistry at Purdue University, was Urry’s first real exposure to the field of academia. “If I had to pick one reason why I am a professor, it’s because of my family––I knew what that job was, I knew it existed,” Urry reflected. She pauses before going on to mention that science was not her favorite subject growing up––it felt too static, too centered on memorization rather than deep learning.

During her freshman year at Tufts University, Urry enrolled in an introductory physics course that nearly succeeded in deterring Urry from pursuing a major in physics. Not only was Urry the only woman enrolled in the course, but she found that her professor tended to obfuscate rather than clarify what should have been simple concepts. The first semester of familiar Newtonian physics passed uneventfully, but, as the curriculum slid into the unintuitive world of electromagnetism, Urry faced the first of many trials of her academic career. “I absolutely bombed the first exam second semester of freshman year—I got the worst grade on anything in my life,” Urry chuckled. “I think at that moment I had a choice. Do I say, ‘This isn’t for me’ because I was plenty good at other things. But then I thought, ‘You know, this cannot be that hard. Thousands and thousands of people have succeeded in learning physics.’”

For Urry, this epiphany was a step through a barrier that even today holds many people back from pursuing science. She recognized that her performance on the test had nothing to do with her innate capabilities or gender—it was merely a reflection of the teaching style and her studying methods. Propelled by this realization, she began to teach herself the material directly from the textbook. By the end of the semester, electromagnetism began to make more sense and suddenly, “It just clicked. I finally saw how this all works and why. Once I mastered that, I started to see physics as more fun,” Urry remarked.

Following this passion, Urry spent the summer after her junior year gazing across the universe at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. Even through our Zoom video call, Urry’s excitement for research was palpable. She lit up as she recalled her first research project where she made her first      significant astronomical discovery. Urry’s survey required her to painstakingly take punch cards with specific coordinates to parts of the sky, find the corresponding filing cabinet, pull out huge sheets of photographic paper, and meticulously analyze the images produced by radio sources from the distant universe. After peering through hundreds of images of the night sky, Urry found an anomaly: two identical astronomical bodies situated impossibly close to each other. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Urry had discovered the first example of gravitational lensing. Yet, when asked about the experience, Urry humbly said, “That was new knowledge—coming from a few measly photons that came off our way. Suddenly, I realized that this was what I wanted to do.” That summer gave her the confidence and intellectual motivation to pursue astronomy in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. At JHU, she found herself the only woman in the class—again. But she never thought much of it at the time, noting, “The fact that it was all men… that was just everywhere.”

It was not until her postdoctoral fellowship at MIT that Urry realized the role sexism played in STEM. Towards the end of Urry’s fellowship at MIT, she applied for a permanent faculty position at the institute but was rejected. Her colleague who ultimately got the job reassured her that there were many other opportunities because, due to affirmative action, “Everyone has to hire women,” an idea Urry rejected. This sentiment was incredibly unsettling for Urry. “It just felt terrible. You never want to feel like you had an advantage or that someone gave you a leg up,” she said.

This experience, along with many others, has inspired Urry to try to understand and untangle the intertwining strands of history, culture, sexism, and racism that have resulted in a lack of diversity and representation in science.  Just like in a physics problem, Urry has identified the force that has shaped the field: a gravitational pull towards a perpetuation of similar scientists. “We believe that [selecting faculty] is about [one’s] publications and their stature and the quality of their ideas, but also, it’s about our comfort level with them and our sense that they are really good people—which often turns into an issue of self-validation. Are they like me? Did they go to a similar school? It ends up being a homogenizing process,” she said.

In 2001, Urry accepted a faculty position at Yale. She knew from the very beginning that she wanted to teach introductory physics, helping students make that critical first leap into the world of physics. For many students––particularly students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in science[1]––this “barrier moment,” as Urry calls it, completely turns them off from pursuing physics. The central question then follows: how do we eliminate this barrier? Urry’s goal in- and outside of the classroom has always been to engage students and make physics personal, interesting, and, most importantly, accessible.

For instance, she has continually experimented with her teaching style, notably incorporating a flipped classroom structure, so that her students get a deeper, more intuitive sense of the physical world. It has been a few years now since Urry has taught introductory physics. She currently teaches a course entitled “Expanding Ideas of Time and Space,” which she told us is one of the most-requested first-year seminars offered. As she said this, Urry leaned back, threw up her hands, and put on her humble-brag face—we could not help but laugh.    

Outside of the classroom, Urry works tirelessly to make science accessible to all people. Urry is a regular science contributor for CNN and has written pieces on NASA, astrophysics, and the experience of women in STEM. In 2017, she helped jump-start the Global Teaching Project, an EdTech initiative dedicated to bringing advanced coursework to “rural and underserved communities.” Since then, the project––currently focused on in the Mississippi Delta region––has continued to grow, reaching over four hundred students to date.

Urry has also enacted waves of change within the Physics department at Yale. Serving as chair from 2007 to 2013, her primary focus was on addressing equity issues within the department. Urry’s legacy in this area cannot be understated. When she arrived at Yale in 2001, she was the only female physics faculty member. Now there are seven women faculty members, six with tenure. It is clear though, that these changes have not been easy to enact. Urry told us that after continuously being labeled “overly ambitious” and having her intelligence questioned that “there have been days when I’ve gone into my office and cried. I want people to know, though, that if you power through bad times with confidence, that things will even out. After all, in the end, it’s about the work you do, what you learn.”

Even from a cursory look at her research, it is clear that Urry has stayed true to this resolve. Studying the evolution of galaxies over the last twelve billion years, Urry has made incredible leaps forward in the field of astronomy. By analyzing spectra from distant galaxies, Urry and her team have identified the rate at which the matter accumulated around black holes is converted into light—proving that black holes are spinning at their maximum possible speed. This is no small finding. It implies that the growth of black holes comes from matter falling into them, which tends to spin them up, rather than from mergers of big black holes, which on average should decrease the spin.

Science is as much about data as it is about people. “The most power in science comes from the clash of ideas. Every big discovery is a paradigm shift. To get there, you have to reject the current paradigm. We need more conflict, more argument, more difference. That’s why excellence in science is so closely tied to diversity. All kinds, different paths, people who are not the same,” Urry explained. From a humanistic and a scientific perspective, equity and diversity are essential. “What would [life] be like if we had really opened the doors and made it possible for everyone to thrive [from the very beginning]?” Urry muses. Although she mourns the generations of women’s and other underrepresented people’s voices that went unsupported and unheard in the scientific community, Urry is clearly excited for the future of science. Through the thousands of students that she has inspired and guided, she is helping to bring about a new diverse generation of scientists rich in differing perspectives, ready to explore the universe and solve humanity’s most pressing problems.

References:

Global Teaching Project. (2019, October 18). About Us. https://www.globalteachingproject.com/about-us/


[1] This is the institutional jargon commonly used to describe the lack of representation of historically marginalized groups. However, this terminology in itself is passively problematic as it refuses to place any accountability for the people, practices, and policies that marginalized these groups.

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