Monday, October 5, 2015

Woman Astronomer of the Month: Joan Schmelz

As a new series to the Women in Astronomy blog, each month we will highlight one female astronomer for her work in the field and outstanding service to the community.  This month we are featuring past Chair Joan Schmelz, whose excellent work as Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy has been a vital part of the success of both the CSWA and the Women in Astronomy blog.


figure 1: Joan Schmelz

Joan Schmelz currently serves as the deputy director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. She is a solar physicist who received her Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from Penn State University in 1987. She then joined the operations team for the Solar Maximum Mission Satellite at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. She is a professor at University of Memphis and a regular visitor to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Her research investigates coronal heating and coronal loops as well as the properties and dynamics of the solar atmosphere. She is a former program officer for the National Science Foundation's Division of Astronomical Sciences. Schmelz is also the former chair of the American Astronomical Society's Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. In addition to writing science papers for the Astrophysical Journal, she also writes regular posts for the Women in Astronomy blogspot on topics such as unconscious bias, stereotype threat, and the gender gap.




1. How did you first become interested in astronomy?

I grew up in New Jersey, close to New York City, where there was so much light pollution that it wasn’t easy to see the stars. But when I was 7 years old, I found a map of the solar system in my mother’s desk drawer. It was fascinating! I studied it for hours. No one in my family was a scientist. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as an “astronomer” until I was in high school. But after finding that map, I went out of my way to learn more about astronomy. The first “stars” I ever saw were projected on the screen at the Hayden Planetarium.

figure 2: Auntie Joan teaches niece Macy how to fly

2. Who inspired you?

The “Computers” from the Harvard College Observatory inspired and continue to inspire me. They were the women who analyzed the glass plates, made revolutionary discoveries, and allowed generations of women to follow in their footsteps. Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and Antonia Maury may be better known, but for me, Williamina Fleming is the most inspiring. Here is a short list of her amazing discoveries:

-10 of the 24 known novae.
-94 of the 107 known Wolf-Rayet stars.
-59 gaseous nebulae.
-Long-period variable stars.
-Variable stars could be identified by certain spectral characteristics (she identified and analyzed 222 of them).
-Created first photographic standard for determining the star magnitude (selected comparison stars so the brightness of the variable stars to be determined accurately.
-First spectroscopic binary, Beta Lyrae, spectral variations corresponded to changes in the light from the star, indicating that it was a double star (usually credited to Pickering).
-Early work was published under Pickering's name, although by 1890, "M. Fleming" was appearing on the reports as Pickering's coauthor.

figure 3: Joan and her friend, Susan Mitchel, each with her Mercedes

3. What are some of the tradeoffs from being heavily involved in research, teaching, and administration?

I personally have to work hard to be a good and effective teacher, but most of this work takes place the first time I teach a new course. I also work hard to carve out time to do research, so once I had a repertoire of courses, I fought to repeat them rather than have new preparations. Service work, including chairing CSWA, was something I added slowly once my science reputation was established, and administration is another component that I have just started doing recently.

I confess that after 20 years of teaching, I was a bit tired of it and looking for new challenges. It is absolutely true that I was reinvigorated by the opportunities provided by sabbaticals, but I looked forward less and less to returning to my university schedule and responsibilities. The NSF rotator positions were tailor made for people like me. I loved the changes, challenges, and opportunities. I met fantastic people, contributed to the funding of important science, and learned that I was ready to leave academia. When I was invited to apply for the position of Deputy Director of Arecibo Observatory, I was ready to make the move. This new job takes a lot of time and has a lot of new challenges, but I do love it. I am still, however, working hard to carve out time to do research. Some things never change!

4. In addition to your work as an astronomer, you've lead the CSWA for 8 years?  What was your best moment as Chair?

I don’t think there was one single moment, so let me give you the top three: when I was able to make a significant difference in the lives of young women who were experiencing sexual harassment; when the Women in Astronomy blog got its millionth view; and when faculty of prestigious universities and researchers at national labs looked to me for advice on matters of gender equity and I had answers for them.

figure 4: Joan and her husband, Gerrit Verschuur, at the Cape of Good Hope


5. Sexual harassment is an issue you've chosen to combat.  Why is this important and what advice would you give to anyone experiencing sexual harassment?

I was a victim of sexual harassment early in my career. A young astronomer convinced me to blog about that experience. You can read my story here.

It was controversial at the time because I did not want to post it anonymously – I wanted to put my name on it. I had my first telecon with AAS lawyers, who were amazingly helpful in setting up the parameters of what I could and could not say. Readers were overwhelmingly supportive, but the post had an unanticipated consequence. Young women in astronomy and physics, themselves victims of sexual harassment, started contacting me for help. Naively, I had thought that sexual harassment was a thing of the past, that it had ended in the wake of the Hill-Thomas hearings on Capitol Hill. Now I know better. Sexual harassment didn’t stop, it just went underground. 

6. What do you like to do in your spare time?

Cliché – what spare time? But more seriously, I love spending time with family. My husband and I like dancing, but regrettably do less and less these days. Since moving to Puerto Rico, we have both started swimming. He’s a really good swimmer; I’m terrible but getting better. I love walking on the beach, and now I just have to cross the street to indulge in this pleasure. We love cruising – to warm places when it’s cold and to cold places when it’s warm. I love my car, but really don’t like commuting to the observatory. I also love reading, especially good science fiction and fantasy with female protagonists (suggestions anyone?). 

figure 5: Joan on the balcony of the cruise ship, Prinsendam, at the Top of the World with the Arctic ice sheet behind her


7. What advice would you give to a woman who is looking to enter into the field of astronomy?


Astronomy is hard but it is also wonderful. If it is not your passion, get out early and do something else. But if you love it, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Go for it with every fiber of your being!

8. Where do you consider “home” to be?

I’ve lived in many places and really consider none of them to be “home.” Allow me to paraphrase the old expression, “Home is where the heart is.” I met and fell in love with radio astronomer, Gerrit Verschuur, at an AAS meeting in 1985. We got married a year later and have managed to move together from place to place. Home is where Gerrit is.

The CSWA would like to thank Joan for all her tremendous work, not only as Chair, but as a continuing blogger for Women in Astronomy and for the countless astronomers she has helped along the way!  The CSWA would also like to acknowledge and thank Drs. A. Meredith Hughes (Wesleyan University), Nicole Zellner (Albion College), Caroline Simpson (Florida International University), and Neil Gehrels (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) for their hard work as members of the CSWA!  We'd also like to thank Laura Trouille for her many years of service as a regular blogger and former Blogger-in-Chief of the Women in Astronomy blog.