Woman Astronomer on Her Career

Astronomer Heidi B. Hammel, 47, studies outer planets (right now, she's focusing on Uranus). She's also helping to build the next big space telescope after Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2013. Hammel telecommutes to her job as senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., from her home in Connecticut, where she and her husband are raising their three children. She spoke to NEWSWEEK'S Barbara Kantrowitz.

When did you first study stars?
My parents used to do a lot of road trips and I got very carsick. To distract myself, especially at night, I stared out the window and started recognizing patterns in the sky. I learned the constellations because it helped get my mind off the fact that I felt absolutely awful in the car. I have talked with kids who know they want to be astronomers. I never had any self-knowledge like that. I spent far more time playing Monopoly or card games or riding a bike than anything science-related.

So how did you end up at MIT?
A math teacher encouraged me to apply and I remember saying, "What is MIT?" I went to my chemistry teacher for a letter of recommendation and he said, "No, you'll never get in." When I came back with my acceptance letter, he said, "That's only because you're a woman. They have quotas to fill." This was in 1978, so people were a little less enlightened.

How did you find your calling at MIT?
I struggled so hard. Nobody seemed to be working as hard as I did and they were getting much better grades. I was not a very happy person there. I learned how to work hard and how to cope with failure. I learned you couldn't let things get you down. If you persevere, the rewards will come later on.

Astronomy was an elective that I had to fill in my sophomore year. I remember walking into the class and there were four people: two guys who were graduate students, a guy who was a senior, and then me. I did feel out of place—not only my gender but also that everyone else was older. But the professor worked really hard to keep me in the class. The next year he asked me to help teach the course and I started working in his laboratory. I really enjoyed it.

I did well enough to go on to graduate school, and I was very fortunate to be in graduate school in Hawaii at the time that they were building these fabulous new telescopes. A lot of being successful is being in the right place at the right time but also being willing to take a chance. For me, going out to Hawaii was taking a chance. I had never been there and I just got a one-way ticket and went.

Big telescopes lead us to the Hubble. Tell me about that.
In 1993, when I was a postdoc at MIT, they discovered a comet called Shoemaker-Levy 9, which was orbiting around Jupiter. The guy down the hall from me asked to help him write a proposal to use Hubble. In December, I got a phone call and they said, "We have picked your proposal and five other proposals to watch this comet crash into Jupiter and we would like you to be the leader of the team to combine all five proposals." I had never used Hubble. I had never published a paper about Jupiter and here they are asking me to lead the team. Part of it might have been because I was not a Jupiter expert and so I didn't have a vested interest. Maybe they just rolled the dice. I don't know. I remember being absolutely flabbergasted but I had to say yes.

How did you manage it?
I relied on my team. I had great people to work with. That's another thing I try to explain to young people. A lot of people think science is a real solo thing. They think of Einstein sitting at his desk in the patent office all by himself. But nowadays, for the most part, science is done in a collaborative environment.

Has being a woman affected your scientific career?
Women usually bear the brunt of the two-body problem (when both spouses work). Ten years ago I was a principal research scientist at MIT when my husband got a job that relocated us to Connecticut. I went through a real crisis, since there were no jobs for me anywhere nearby. Finally someone told me about the Space Science Institute. They let me work in an office at my home, although I travel all the time for meetings and for work at the telescopes. I am now the co director of SSI's Research Branch. Our scientists are all across the country. It really makes sense to work that way. Even at MIT, my scientific colleagues were in Arizona, California, all over, not just down the hall.

How do you manage work and family?
I rely on my spouse, my neighbors and the other parents at school to help. My biggest headache is things that just pop up out of nowhere, since I am usually coordinating schedules between my work, my husband's work and my three children's activities up to a year in advance. But you just learn to deal with life on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes even an hour-to-hour basis during a rough spell. And you try to keep a sense of humor.

What ' s the best advice you could give young women?
Don't turn down an opportunity because you are afraid. That's not a good reason to turn down something. So many people, especially women, think they're not qualified when it comes to new opportunities. You think there is someone who can do a job better, but usually there's not. Those guys who are acting like they are better qualified? They aren't any better qualified. They just think they are. Be willing to take a chance!