Beyond Vassar

AAVC Award for Distinguished Achievement

By Amy Boggs ’07

When Vera Cooper Rubin ’48 looks at the night sky, she thinks not only of questions that need answering but also of widely accepted answers that need questioning.

Rubin’s interest in astronomy started when she was growing up in Washington, DC. She spent her time star-gazing and reading books on the subject — including a biography of Maria Mitchell, professor of astronomy at Vassar from 1865 to 1886. The find would influence Rubin’s decision to attend Vassar, one of the few colleges for women that offered astronomy.

After graduating as the only astronomy major in her class, she married Robert Rubin and went on to earn a master’s from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from Georgetown University. (She also had two children along the way.)

Rubin routinely faced opposition throughout her academic career, both for being a woman and for having unconventional ideas. Even those who supported her ideas knew they would not be accepted in academia. “Like my master’s thesis, my Ph.D. thesis was rejected for publication in the prominent astronomy journals,” said Rubin.

Undeterred, she went on to teach at Georgetown (and had two more children between terms). In 1965, hearing of the construction of a spectrograph at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, she got a job there, becoming its first woman staff member. Rubin worked with Kent Ford on the clumping of galaxies, the topic of her master’s thesis. They reached the same conclusions — and encountered the same criticism. But other astronomers started researching the findings, and the topic soon became a major branch of extragalactic astronomy, prompting Rubin to concentrate on something else. “I didn’t work on problems that everybody else was working on,” she said. “I found it very distasteful to have to compete that way. I picked problems that I thought would be of value to astronomy when I had finished.”

In the late ’70s, she and Ford turned to studying galaxies’ rotation properties. While research had been done on the rotation rates of galactic centers, Rubin concentrated on the outer edges. Her findings led to proving previous theories that there is a large amount of unknown matter holding galaxies together, something she called “dark matter.”

Since then, Rubin has received numerous honors, including the National Medal of Science and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (she was the first woman to receive the latter since 1828). This year, the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College Awards Committee chose Rubin to receive its Award for Distinguished Achievement. “Vera Cooper Rubin has not just risen to the top of her profession, she has done so while always cognizant of her role as a mentor to and example for other women pursuing scientific careers,” said Meg Venecek Johnson ’84, AAVC president.

This award from AAVC holds a special significance because of the influence the college had on Rubin’s life. “I learned at Vassar that the roots of all knowledge can be found by going to the source,” she said. “At Vassar, it may have been the library and the telescope. Today, it’s the stars and the galaxies.”

Vera Cooper Rubin '65
Vera Cooper Rubin '65
Despite all the accolades, however, there are other things Rubin prizes more. “In my life, I’m most proud of my children and my marriage. In my career, I’m generally proud of having pulled it all off,” she said. “And just a couple of years ago, I made a discovery. I am proud of that because it came [later in life] when I was beginning to wonder if there would be any more discoveries.”

Above all, Rubin believes in the importance of finding one’s own way. “When I was in school, I was continually told to go find something else to study, or told I wouldn’t get a job as an astronomer. But I just didn’t listen,” Rubin said. “If it’s something you really want to do, you just have to do it—and maybe have the courage to do it a little differently.”

To read more about Rubin’s career, visit