For One Astronomer, a Solar Eclipse Illuminates Progress for Women in the Field

Courtesy of Debra Elmegreen

Debra Elmegreen, an astronomer at Vassar, will be flying to Kansas City with her husband to see the eclipse “like everyone else.”

On August 21, as a total solar eclipse cuts a horizontal stripe across the center of the country, millions of Americans will get a deeply spiritual lesson in humanity’s eternal nature.

For some university astronomers, it will also be a welcome reminder that important things in their lives can change, if not quite as fast as they might like.

Back in 1878, as a previous solar eclipse neared, the U.S. government agreed to fund a few teams of scientists to travel west to the predicted path of totality — a vertical band, stretching from the Montana Territory to Texas, across which the sun was completely obscured — and conduct various studies of it.

But the government only financed trips by men. Professor Maria Mitchell of Vassar College, already a globally recognized astronomer known for an 1847 comet discovery, was turned down.

In 2017, it’s a much different world for Ms. Mitchell’s successors. Debra M. Elmegreen, the astronomy professor holding the Maria Mitchell chair at Vassar, is also chair of Vassar’s physics and astronomy department, a vice president of the International Astronomical Union, and a past president of the American Astronomical Society. And across her profession, Ms. Elmegreen says, diversity and inclusion are gradually becoming the norm.

Still, there’s significant room for improvement. One of the most striking recent examples involved the University of California at Berkeley, where a renowned astronomy professor, Geoffrey W. Marcy, resigned in 2015 after complaints that he engaged in a decade-long pattern of sexually harassing female students. A survey that year found that only 29 percent of the women in Berkeley’s astronomy department who responded agreed…

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