Women in STEM reach for the stars

These women pursued science to study space and everything in it
Sep 15, 2016 — 7:15 am EST
Veronica Allen

Veronica Allen with her daughter at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in England.


A few weeks ago, we at Science News for Students asked for women in science, technology, engineering and math to send us pictures of themselves. We wanted to show women in all walks of STEM doing what they do best. We had hoped for some 10 or 20 submissions — enough for our feature and a few blog posts.

And then you all blew us away.

As of Monday, September 12, Science News for Students received more than 150 submissions from women in STEM. Many of these amazing scientists, engineers, coders and more come from 28 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Others come from 17 other countries. Together, these women live and work on all seven continents — yes, that includes Antarctica. They span all ages, races and fields of study. And we are very proud to share their pictures, videos and stories this week.  

To kick us off, here are 11 women who are reaching for the stars through careers in astronomy and astrophysics.

Veronica Allen

Though she comes from the United States, Allen is getting her PhD in astronomy at the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in the Netherlands. She uses the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (or ALMA) — a huge telescope located in Chile. With it, she’s studying how stars form in the Milky Way.

“I am the mother of one (very soon two) children, and I love ice skating, tea gardens and training with my dog in agility," she says. "A tea garden is a specialty tea cafe with a nice garden attached. I go to a lovely one near where I live called ‘De Theefabriek.’”

Debra Elmegreen
Debra Elmegreen at the Gemini 8-meter telescope in Hawaii.
Bruce Elmegreen

Debra Elmegreen

“I am an astronomer who studies the evolution of galaxies,” Elmegreen says. She studies these massive collections of stars mostly by using observations from the Hubble Space Telescope. Elmegreen also teaches astronomy at Vassar College in New York City.

Elmegreen takes an active role in scientific societies — groups of scientists that share their findings with each other at meetings and who promote their field of research to others. She has been the president of the American Astronomical Society. Right now, she is vice president of the International Astronomical Union. She also is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. When she’s not studying the celestial stars, Elmegreen is a big fan of baseball stars — the New York Yankees.

Nicole Gugliucci
Nicole Gugliucci loves to dye her hair purple.
Nicole Gugliucci

Nicole Gugliucci

“I've worked with some of the biggest radio telescopes in the world to image black holes and gas clouds,” says Gugliucci. She’s an astronomer at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. “I've also helped build some tiny and amazing radio telescopes to observe the early universe or to demonstrate radio astronomy to students.” And she works to share her love of science through teaching and outreach programs.

In her free time, Gugliucci is into a workout called CrossFit. “I can now deadlift more than my weight,” she says. “This helps immensely in getting the observatory ready for public observing or student labs.” 

Rosie Johnson
Rosie Johnson stands inside the NASA infrared telescope facility at the Mauna Kea observatories in Hawaii.
Rosie Johnson

Rosie Johnson

Why study auroras on Earth when you could study them on Jupiter? That’s what Rosie Johnson does. “I've had the amazing opportunity to go to Hawaii and use the NASA infrared telescope facility to observe Jupiter's northern lights,” she says. (NASA is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.) “We're interested in finding out how different the northern lights are on Jupiter from the northern lights of the Earth” — and the role our sun plays in those atmospheric displays.

When she’s not working, Johnson loves to go kayaking. She’s paddled on the Upper Nile in Uganda and off 9-meter (30-foot) waterfalls in Wales.

Lucia Marchetti

Lucia Marchetti
Lucia Marchetti making a home-cooked Italian dinner.
Lucia Marchetti

Marchetti started studying the stars in Italy, but is now working as an astronomer at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England. “My research,” she explains, “is focused on the study of galaxy formation and evolution — or, in other words, on how galaxies change their physical properties (color, luminosity and so on) in space and with time.” Her job lets her see the world as she uses various telescopes around the globe. She wrote to us from Cape Town, South Africa, where she was working on the South African Large Telescope (SALT).

“When I am not traveling or investigating the universe, I love to engage in some good science communication activities and to hang around with friends,” she says. “It’s always a pleasure when I find the time to cook a proper home-made Italian dinner for old and new friends!”

Christina Richey
Christina Richey rocked her blue and purple hair (and a model asteroid) as she talked to the media about the OSIRIS-REx launch last week.

Christina Richey

Richey is a planetary scientist who works for NASA in Washington, D.C. And she’s been very busy lately. She’s one of the scientists on the OSIRIS-REx Mission. NASA launched this spacecraft on September 8. It’s off to grab a sample from an asteroid named Bennu. OSIRIS-REx is not scheduled to return to Earth until 2023. 

Richey manages several other programs. And in her spare time, she notes, “I work as advocate for inclusion and a safe, welcoming environment for all within my field.”

Johanna Teske
Johanna Teske with her astronomy-themed sign at the Los Angeles Marathon in February 2016.
Johanna Teske

Johanna Teske

“I'm an astronomer who studies exoplanets — planets around stars other than the sun — and their host stars,” explains Teske. Her team’s goal is to understand the diversity of planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way. She works at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

In her free time, Teske run marathons. Her friends even make astronomy-themed signs to cheer her on!

Sheona Urquhart
Sheona Urquhart shoots a selfie.
Sheona Urquhart

Sheona Urquhart

“I am an astrophysicist and I study galaxy evolution,” explains Urquhart. She’s looking for any influence the local environment might have on that galaxy. She works at the University of Hull in England. As a scientific outreach officer, she also work with local schools and the community. Her goal is “to promote the study of physics and enthuse young people!”

In her free time, Urquhart gets away from the light waves emitted by stars to study ocean waves here on Earth. In short: She loves surfing.

Licia Verde
Licia Verde with her daughters.
Licia Verde

Licia Verde

“In primary school I was not good in math,” says Verde. "[I thought] ‘Why should one plus one, in abstract, be two? Who says so? Who cares?’ [But] then I realized that nature is written in the language of mathematics.” And that changed her outlook on things, especially math.

Today, she studies astrophysics at the Institute of Cosmos Sciences at the University of Barcelona in Spain. Verde also is the mother of twin girls.

Jennifer White
Jennifer White does a headstand on her paddleboard.
Jennifer White

Jennifer White

White has always loved smashing stereotypes. She operates simulators for satellites and works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the NOAA Satellite Operations Facility in Maryland.

Outside of the office she takes on a hosts of athletic pursuits. “I have over 600 skydives and got my Advanced SCUBA certification at the Great Barrier Reef,” she notes. “I also rock climb, mountain bike, run, [stand-up on paddleboard], and have a motorcycle.”

Angela Zalucha
Angela Zalucha hikes her skiis up a mountain, seeking out snow in the summer.
Jake Simon

Angela Zalucha

Zalucha is most interested in weather — weather that is far, far from home. “I write computer programs that simulate atmospheres that are truly out of this world,” she says. “Just like Earth has weather and climate, so do a lot of other places like Pluto, Mars and Venus, just to name a few.” She predicts the temperature, pressure and motion of those distant atmospheres. This atmospheric scientist works at the SETI Institute, which searches for life outside our solar system.

To chill out, Zalucha has a goal of downhill skiing every single month of the year. “So far my record has lasted for 35 months and counting!”

This is only the first in a series, as we highlight more than 100 women in STEM. Keep an eye out for our next installment!

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Johanna Teske works on the on the Planet Finder Spectrograph (PFS) at the Magellan II Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.
Jeff Crane, Cindy Hunt-Benson, Carnegie Observatories

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

abstract     Something that exists as an idea or thought but not concrete or tangible (touchable) in the real world. Beauty, love and memory are abstractions; cars, trees and water are concrete and tangible. (in publishing) A short summary of a scientific paper, a poster or a scientist’s talk. Abstracts are useful to determine whether delving into the details of the whole scientific paper will yield the information you seek.

aeronautics     The study of flight and development — or refinement — of craft to move through air or space.

Antarctica     A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the world.

array     A broad and organized group of objects. Sometimes they are instruments placed in a systematic fashion to collect information in a coordinated way. Other times, an array can refer to things that are laid out or displayed in a way that can make a broad range of related things, such as colors, visible at once.

asteroid     A rocky object in orbit around the sun. Most orbit in a region that falls between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers refer to this region as the asteroid belt.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.

astrophysics     An area of astronomy that deals with understanding the physical nature of stars and other objects in space. People who work in this field are known as astrophysicists.

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

black hole     A region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation (including light) can escape.

climate     The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

cloud     A mass of airborne water droplets and ice crystals that travel as a plume, usually high in Earth’s atmosphere. Their movement is driven by winds.

computer program     A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

continent     (in geology) The huge land masses that sit upon tectonic plates. In modern times, there are six geologic continents: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia and Antarctic a .

cosmos     (adj. cosmic) A term that refers to the universe and everything within it.

deadlift     A power-lifting exercise during which someone lifts a heavy barbell off of the ground, and as high as the hips, then returns it back to the ground.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create for that organism or process. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature, humidity and placement of components in some electronics system or product.

evolution     (v. to evolve) A process by which species undergo changes over time, usually through genetic variation and natural selection. These changes usually result in a new type of organism better suited for its environment than the earlier type. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the conditions in which it developed.

exoplanet     A planet that orbits a star outside the solar system. Also called an extrasolar planet.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.

galaxy     A massive group of stars bound together by gravity. Galaxies, which each typically include between 10 million and 100 trillion stars, also include clouds of gas, dust and the remnants of exploded stars.

Jupiter     (in astronomy) The solar system’s largest planet, it has the shortest day length (10 hours). A gas giant, its low density indicates that this planet is composed of light elements, such as hydrogen and helium. This planet also releases more heat than it receives from the sun as gravity compresses its mass (and slowly shrinks the planet).

Mars     The fourth planet from the sun, just one planet out from Earth. Like Earth, it has seasons and moisture. But its diameter is only about half as big as Earth’s.

Milky Way     The galaxy in which Earth’s solar system resides.

NASA     Short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It has also sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration     (or NASA) Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It has also sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

observatory     (in astronomy) The building or structure (such as a satellite) that houses one or more telescopes.

physical     (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are d ue to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).

physics     The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physics is an explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. Quantum physics, a field of study which emerged later, is a more accurate way of explaining the motions and behavior of matter. A scientist who works in that field is known as a physicist.

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and it must have cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, it must be big enough to pull neighboring objects into the planet itself or to sling-shot them around the planet and off into outer space. Astronomers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created this three-part scientific definition of a planet in August 2006 to determine Pluto’s status. Based on that definition, IAU ruled that Pluto did not qualify. The solar system now includes eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Pluto     A dwarf planet that is located in the Kuiper Belt, just beyond Neptune. Pluto is the tenth largest object orbiting the sun.

pressure     Force applied uniformly over a surface, measured as force per unit of area.

radio     To send and receive radio waves; or the device that receives these transmissions.

reef     A ridge of rock, coral or sand. It rises up from the seafloor and may come to just above or just under the water’s surface.

satellite     A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.

SETI     An abbreviation for search for extraterrestrial life, meaning life on other worlds.

simulate     To deceive in some way by imitating the form or function of something. A simulated dietary fat, for instance, may deceive the mouth that it has tasted a real fat because it has the same feel on the tongue — without having any calories. A simulated sense of touch may fool the brain into thinking a finger has touched something even though a hand may no longer exists and has been replaced by a synthetic limb. (in computing) To try and imitate the conditions, functions or appearance of something. Computer programs that do this are referred to as simulations.

simulator     A device that attempts to mimic the form or function of something. A flight simulator, helps airline pilots practice flying from the safety of a cockpit on the ground. Computers display what the pilot would see on the dials and out of the windows in reaction to each action he or she takes.

society     An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.

star     The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

stereotype     A widely held view or explanation for something, which often may be wrong because it has been overly simplified.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Or a sunlike star.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

telescope     Usually a light-collecting instrument that makes distant objects appear nearer through the use of lenses or a combination of curved mirrors and lenses. Some, however, collect radio emissions (energy from a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) through a network of antennas.

universe     The entire cosmos: All things that exist throughout space and time. It has been expanding since its formation during an event known as the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago (give or take a few hundred million years).

Venus     The second planet out from the sun, it has a rocky core, just as Earth does. However, Venus lost most of its water long ago. The sun’s ultraviolet radiation broke apart those water molecules, allowing their hydrogen atoms to escape into space. Volcanoes on the planet’s surface spewed high levels of carbon dioxide, which built up in the planet’s atmosphere. Today the air pressure at the planet’s surface is 100 times greater than on Earth, and the atmosphere now keeps the surface of Venus a brutal 460° Celsius (860° Fahrenheit).

Wales     One of the three components of Great Britain (the other two being England and Scotland. It’s also part of the United Kingdom (whose other members include England, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.


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