This WiSE Wednesday, we honor another great female scientist we said goodbye to in 2016. Vera Rubin, born in Philadelphia in 1928, was fascinated by the night sky from a young age. This curiosity propelled her to a highly successful career as an astronomer in which, among other findings, she largely confirmed the existence of large amounts of dark matter in the universe. Her path as a woman through academia was far from easy, however. Rejecting a high school teacher’s advice to avoid science, she received an undergraduate degree from Vassar College before seeking a graduate degree in astronomy. Barred from matriculating at Princeton due to her gender, she instead studied at Cornell and Georgetown, and went on to a faculty position at the Carnegie Institute where she was initially denied access to the observatory because there was no women’s restroom (she negated that problem by taping a paper cutout of a skirt to the men’s symbol on a bathroom door). She was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1993 and was long speculated to be on the short list for a Nobel Prize. Vera’s successes are all the more impressive in that she achieved them while raising four children (all of whom went on to receive PhDs). In addition to encouraging women to enter science by example, she actively advocated for women’s rights, saying that she “lived and worked by three basic assumptions: 1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman. 2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women. 3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women.” Vera passed away on December 25, but her star continues to shine.
Photo credit: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post