Tufts University

C. Megan Urry

[ Biography | Honorary Degree ]

Commencement 2009

C. MEGAN URRY, J77, is the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale University, where she studies what are known as active galaxies, that is, those with luminous cores that are powered by massive black holes. She designed major projects to use space telescopes to find and characterize these black holes and their host galaxies, discovering that most were hidden from conventional ground-based observations. Urry also established the unified theory of active galaxies, demonstrating that "blazars" are distant active galaxies dominated by jets speeding toward us at nearly the speed of light. She and her research group are now focusing on how black holes and galaxies evolve together through cosmic time.

She arrived at Yale in 2001 as the first female tenured faculty member in the history of the Yale physics department. In addition to her scientific accomplishments, Urry is an ardent spokeswoman in support of more women and minorities pursuing careers in science. Now chair of her department and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, she has organized and directed numerous conferences on the subject and written articles encouraging non-traditional students to enter scientific careers. She has spoken about her own experiences, remembering a professor who addressed his graduate students as "gentlemen and Meg," demonstrating to her that she was identified primarily by her gender. In 2005, in a commentary in the Washington Post, she wrote that over the years, she has seen women in the scientific world "treated badly, being marginalized, mistreated, harassed. . . . After enough of this kind of thing, women feel beaten down and underappreciated, or worse, they feel incapable. That's the most insidious thing."

Her own scientific learning began with her parents, who encouraged their children to think in a logical, methodical way. "I always thought everyone did that, but now I recognize my idea of 'normal' as a very standard scientific approach," she said. "What do we know? What are the options? What further information do we need to find out in order to figure out the problem? So my parents prepared me to be a natural scientist."

Science runs in the family. Urry's father Dr. Grant W. Urry was chairman of the chemistry department at Tufts from 1968 to 1973 and was named the Robinson Professor of Chemistry in 1971, a chair he held until his retirement in 1992.

His daughter studied physics and mathematics at Tufts, graduating summa cum laude in 1977, and went on to earn a master's and Ph.D. in physics from John Hopkins University. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she worked at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs the Hubble Space Telescope program for NASA. She was a tenured member of the senior scientific staff and headed the office that reviewed proposals for using the Hubble.

In 2007 she told an interviewer about the exhilaration one gets from studying science. She described how groundbreaking discoveries enter our lives, often years after someone has made the initial breakthrough. Quantum mechanics, for example, which was developed nearly a century ago, "is at the heart of every modern electronic device you know and love: your iPod, your cell phone, your computer," she said. "The physics of the early 20th century ended up fueling the economy of the early 21st century. Who knew?"

But it isn't only the applications of science that she finds so compelling as the challenges of trying to understand nature. "How does the world work? How did we get here? Why is the universe the way it is?" she said. "I get to spend my day trying to answer that kind of question and call it work."

Tufts will award Urry an honorary Doctor of Science degree.

This story originally ran on May 17, 2009.