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Star Professor

During her first semester at Barnard, Julia Sandell ’08, who expected to double-major in dance and political science, elected to complete her science requirement by taking an introductory astronomy course with physics and astronomy professor Laura Kay. Today, Sandell, a PhD candidate in physics at the University of Pennsylvania, seems just as surprised now as then: she says she had “always been an arts student in high school, and the idea of majoring in science had never crossed my mind.”

But Kay’s course turned out to be Sandell’s favorite, and the professor was always happy to discuss various subjects relating to the classes with her. Says Sandell, “She was the main influence on my decision to become a physicist.

Whatever her talents at persuasion, Kay stands foremost as a teacher and as a role model for young women in science, having forged a career in research and teaching when women who wanted such careers were not especially encouraged. In addition to her professorial role in astronomy and physics, she is one of the authors of the recently issued third edition of 21st Century Astronomy, published by W. W. Norton. A popular textbook, this edition was rewritten to reflect a student’s perspective on the science. Kay also served as chair of Barnard’s women’s studies department from 2006-2009. Her studies, research, and experiences in both fields provide the insights and moral support that can encourage undergraduates.

When speaking of her own background, Kay admits that at age 13 or 14, as the only female member of an amateur astronomy club, she had an inkling that becoming a scientist might not be easy. Born and raised in New York City, she attended Hunter College High School (Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was a classmate), an all-girls school at the time. Kay feels that her single-sex education at Hunter contributed to less conformity with gender stereotypes, and most importantly, less pressure to conform to them.

Enrolling as an undergraduate at Stanford brought a reality check: She was the only female in advanced freshman physics. “Not fun,” she says dryly, “but I’m pretty stubborn.” Interest in why there were there so few women in science led to a double-major in physics and feminist studies. Still willfully charting her own course, she went on to receive her advanced degrees in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a break from graduate school in astronomy, she spent 13 months at the Amundsen Scott station at the South Pole in 1984-1985, operating experiments in the physics of the upper atmosphere and studying such phenomena as cosmic rays, auroras, and magnetic field lines.

In 1991, Kay left California to return to New York as a member of the Barnard faculty. Today she teaches courses in introductory astronomy, life in the universe, cosmology, women in science, and polar exploration. She also pursues her research into Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs, defined as galaxies with black holes in their centers) and explores their relationship to quasars. Through a joint program with Columbia, Kay often brings a handful of her students once a year to do research at the MDM Observatory on Kitt Peak, 50 miles west of Tucson, Arizona. The observatory is owned and operated by a consortium of five universities, including Columbia, that maintains its two telescopes.

Accompanied by Kay and a senior astrophysics major, Sandell made her first trip to Kitt Peak during her sophomore year: “We were at the telescope for four or five days, observing AGNs.... [We] helped set up the observing run, moving the telescope and using it to observe these bright galaxy centers....” Another Barnard astro-chemistry major, who will begin pursuing an advanced degree in astronomy in fall 2011, notes that the Arizona trip “solidified my dedication to study in this field.” While the training was invaluable, both former students recall the mentoring, support, and encouragement during these nightly sessions were crucial as well.


In the past 25 years, says Kay, there have been changes in the number of women entering science: the increase has created “a critical mass” in some fields that boosts confidence and provides inspiration. Optimistic about the future, she observes, “Having such a critical mass helps.” She also believes the climate in research labs is changing, albeit at a glacial pace. Speaking of her own career and its relation to her students, “I hope I make it seem possible; I tell my students I want to help them find out what they are really interested in.”

A self-described “umbraphile,” or eclipse lover, Kay has been averaging one trip per decade to view this astonishing phenomenon. The most recent excursion was to Easter Island (Rapa Nui, in Polynesian) to study and photograph a solar eclipse on July 11. The eclipse in its totality was visible along a narrow corridor in the southern hemisphere. Kay captured some astonishing photos of this rare occurrence, including the solar corona, seen only during the brief minutes of the total eclipse.

One of the joys of astronomy is that it is always changing as new discoveries are made with bigger and more powerful telescopes. Even the question of life in our or other Solar Systems—the nuances are explored in one of Kay’s most popular courses, “Life in the Universe”—has to be rethought, as researchers find life at the openings of underwater volcanoes, in frozen glaciers, and at the darkest depths of the earth’s oceans. The opportunities for speculation about life as we may not know it seem endless, and while others see the romance in such speculation, Kay sees the pure joy of science, a love of which she ultimately wants to convey to her students.

-Annette S. Kahn, photograph by Dorothy Hong