Vassar Today

Between the Heavens and Earth: Professor Debra Elmegreen Makes Astronomy's Case to Congress

By Jeff Kosmacher

Last November, galaxy researcher Debra Elmegreen—Vassar’s Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy—received a once-in-a-lifetime letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). It announced her election as one of the group’s permanent Fellows, a distinction she now shares with numerous Nobel laureates and with her scientific forebear, the astronomer Maria Mitchell. (In 1850, Mitchell broke through as the first woman selected to be a member of the AAAS, and a decade later she was the first professor hired by Matthew Vassar.)

Amid the excitement, Elmegreen had to be careful not to get too distracted from the very earthly duties she had been elected to perform a year-and-a-half earlier as president of the 7,800-member-strong American Astronomical Society (AAS), the world’s largest organization for astronomers. The election had put Elmegreen in the thick of the most contentious Washington budget wars in a generation.

“When I was young, one of the appeals of astronomy to me was that it seemed far removed from the problems on Earth. I was so naive that I had no idea that astronomy depended on federal funding and politics, like most other things,” recalls Elmegreen, whose two-year presidency continues through June of this year. In the midst of the toughest economic situation since the Great Depression, the now Congress-savvy scientist has spent a good deal of her time making a case for support of projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope, expected to greatly advance the study of astronomy.

The Webb is the successor to the revolutionary Hubble Space Telescope, which fundamentally changed astronomy when it was launched into Earth’s orbit in 1990. Until then, visual distortions caused by our atmosphere limited the ground-based telescopes that astronomers relied upon. The Hubble instantly made it possible to observe not only “nearby” galaxies in far greater detail, but also very faint and distant galaxies that could never be seen before.

“Some are so far away that the light we receive from them today took 12 billion years to reach us. (The Big Bang is purported to have begun 13.7 billion years ago.) We’re in essence receiving baby photos of galaxies that are now billions of years old,” notes Elmegreen. By comparing these distant images with those of nearer and more developed galaxies, she says, “We can now evaluate galaxies in all stages of evolution, advancing our understanding of how they form.”

The Webb telescope’s mirror will be three times the size of the Hubble’s and it will “see” in infrared, which makes it ideal for detecting distant galaxy light stretched to long wavelengths by the universe’s expansion. This should enable detections of the very first stars and galaxies in the universe, according to Elmegreen.

The prospect is tremendously exciting for Elmegreen, who was a key member of the team that in 2010 discovered what was reported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website to be “the astronomical equivalent of prehistoric life in our intergalactic backyard: a group of small, ancient galaxies that has waited 10 billion years to come together.”

Prior to her AAS presidency, Elmegreen honed her policy skills during a two-year stint on the National Research Council’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Committee, which each decade reports on the most urgent matters in the field and recommends a national strategy to Congress, NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other key agencies. And, this past fall, President Elmegreen and her ASA constituents celebrated the passage of their Congressional appropriations bill, which among other priorities supported NASA and the NSF.

While the astronomer has had a steep learning curve on the federal budget process, she says, “I’ve learned how important it is for ordinary citizens to let Congress know what matters to them, and that political battles have lots of intricacies. It has all been fascinating to me.”

In addition to her career as a distinguished researcher (and funding advocate), Elmegreen still carries a full teaching load at Vassar, where she has taught since 1985. She remains passionate about the future of science education, and advocates for enhancing it in many ways. “The American science literacy rate is appallingly low, and it is vital that we reengage schoolchildren and the public in science,” Elmegreen wrote last October in “We need to draw young people to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as an investment in our future, and astronomy captivates and excites curious minds as few fields can.”