Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. Nancy Grace Roman

Dr. Nancy Grace Roman is an amazing woman of NASA. She was born in Nashville, Tennessee on May 16, 1925.

Her family moved often; she lived in Oklahoma, Texas, New Jersey, Michigan, and Nevada.

While in Michigan, Roman’s mother would take her outside at night to show her the Northern Lights and the constellations. Her mother was a musician and didn’t necessarily believe that science was the right career for a woman, but her nighttime adventures sparked a lifelong passion for Roman.

Roman chose to complete her Bachelor’s degree in astronomy at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Swarthmore was a co-ed college with a good Astronomy program, close to home in Baltimore, Maryland where she finished out high school.

Sadly, the dean of women at the college was so against women in science that she refused to have anything to do with Roman. She completed her degree in February 1946, without the support of the administration.

Roman went on to graduate school at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. She continued working there after finishing her Ph.D. in 1949, despite getting paid only two-thirds the salary of her male co-workers.

The chairman of the department once told her, “We don’t discriminate against women. We can just get them for less.” Despite the sexist climate, Roman continued to do excellent research on the stars in the Milky Way.

In 1955, at the suggestion of her professor Dr. Gerald Kuiper (for whom the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto is named), Roman began working at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

While there, she mapped the Milky Way in radio wavelengths, and even used radar to improve our calculation of the distance to the Moon.

Roman received an invitation to speak on her work with stars in the Soviet Union in 1956. She was the first civilian to visit the country after the start of the Cold War, and the experience thrust her career into hyper-drive.

When she returned to the U.S., she gave talks about her experience, was asked to teach astronomy courses and finally, in 1958, she was invited to develop a program in space astronomy at the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Roman was the first chief of astronomy in the Office of Space Science, and the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA.

She helped plan and oversee many NASA satellite programs, including the Orbiting Astronomical Observatories, a pair of satellites to observe the sky in ultraviolet (which cannot be seen from Earth); the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), which took pictures of the leftover radiation from the Big Bang; and the Hubble Space Telescope, which is responsible for some of the most detailed and beautiful pictures we have of galaxies.

After her retirement in 1979, Roman continued to work as a contractor at NASA Goddard.

She has won several honors, including the NASA Outstanding Scientific Leadership Award, the William Randolf Lovelace II Award from the American Astronautical Society, and the Women in Aerospace Lifetime Achievement Award. She even has a NASA fellowship named after her: The Roman Technology Fellowship in Astrophysics.

Today, Roman continues to inspire young astronomers.

She says, “I like to tell students that the jobs I took after my Ph.D. were not in existence only a few years before. New opportunities can open up for you in this ever-changing field.”

In honor of her contribution to science, the LEGO Company has recently released a special LEGO set for Roman and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Also featured are Margaret Hamilton, whose coding skills got Americans to the Moon; Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; and Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space.

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Friday in the Women’s Center, 12:30 pm.

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