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In the Footsteps of Maria MitchellProfessor Debra M. Elmegreen Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

When Debra M. Elmegreen, Professor of Astronomy on the Maria Mitchell Chair, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) this month, she was the first Vassar astronomy professor to receive such recognition since … well, Maria Mitchell herself.

Professor of Physics and Astronomy Debra ElmegreenPhoto: M. Zamani (IAU)

“It was fun to think about Maria and her legacy in the field of astronomy when I heard I’d been elected,” Elmegreen says.

As a new member of the Academy, Elmegreen joins a distinguished list that includes Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr., in addition to Mitchell. The AAAS Class of 2019 includes former First Lady Michelle Obama and actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, who will be visiting the Vassar campus for several days in early May.

“One of the reasons to honor extraordinary achievement is because the pursuit of excellence is so often accompanied by disappointment and self-doubt,” said AAAS President David W. Oxtoby. “We are pleased to recognize the excellence of our new members, celebrate their compelling accomplishments, and invite them to join the Academy and contribute to its work.”

Founded in 1780 by John Adams and several others, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences honors excellence and convenes leaders from every field of human endeavor to examine new ideas, address issues of importance to the nation and the world, and work together “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” The Academy is both an honorary society that recognizes and celebrates the excellence of its members and an independent research center convening leaders from across disciplines, professions, and perspectives to address significant challenges.

Elmegreen says she suspects she was selected to this prestigious club because of the leadership roles she has assumed recently in her field. She is president-elect of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the largest organization of professional astronomers in the world and will begin her three-year term as president in 2021. Last year, she won the American Astronomical Society’s George van Biesbroeck Prize, awarded every two years to an American astronomer for outstanding service in the field.

While she still loves teaching, Elmegreen says she’s also enjoying her new role of advancing and promoting science and astronomy around the world. “It’s especially gratifying to be helping [the IAU] do this work in developing countries and using astronomy to get young people excited about the STEM fields,” she says.

She says she believes her tenure at Vassar has been a major factor in enabling her to take leadership roles in her field. “All I keep thinking is how lucky I was to come to Vassar because coming from a small college made me stand out in some ways,” she says.

Elmegreen has been on the Vassar faculty since 1985, teaching astronomy at all levels. She received her undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Princeton University (the first woman to do so) and her MA and PhD in Astronomy from Harvard University. She was a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellow (the first woman to hold this position) at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena.

She was a co-founder of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium, which includes Vassar, Wellesley, Haverford, Swarthmore Wesleyan, Colgate, Williams, and Middlebury. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the consortium supports summer research projects for students at constituent organizations and shares pedagogy and research ideas. During her career, Elmegreen has co-published papers with more than 75 students.