Six Women, Past and Present, Who Changed the Way We See the Universe

schedule 5 minutes
We highlight the work of the scientists who paved the way and spotlight some of the women who are changing the way we view the Universe today!

Since the 1920s, there have been women doing scientific research at the Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory (previously the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and Geophysical Laboratory). However, it wasn’t that long ago that women had to fight for a spot on the team, a turn at a telescope, or even just to walk in the door. 

Today, EPL has 22 female scientists on campus including staff scientists, postdocs, and scientific support staff working to enhance our understanding of the world around us.

A lot has changed since the first woman joined our campus, but there is still a lot of work to be done to promote diversity and equality across the sciences. In this article, we highlight the work of the scientists who paved the way and spotlight some of the women who are changing the way we view the Universe today!  

Editors note: This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of the female scientists who have worked or are working at the Earth and Planets Laboratory, all of whom have changed the way we see the universe and the world around us through their work. Current Carnegie scientists missing from this list include Anat Shahar, Diana Roman, Lara Wagner, and Shaunna Morrison.  

1. Gabrielle Donnay

Gabrielle Donnay (pictured above) was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in X-Ray crystallography (MIT, 1949). In 1950, she joined the Geophysical Laboratory as a Postdoctoral Fellow and five years later became GL's first female staff scientist. She stayed on at the Geophysical Lab for 20 years, where she contributed to the field of crystallography and geology in tandem with her husband. She was an internationally known expert on the structure and chemistry of crystals. The mineral gaidonnayite was named for her. 

Donnay was an advocate for women's rights and was a proponent of equal chances for advancement for equally qualified men and women. She even published "Women in the Geological Science in Canada" to bring to light and correct injustices she saw as a woman scientist, which included unequal hiring practices and compensation. 

2. Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin measuring spectra with the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism measuring engine.

In 1965, Vera Rubin joined the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism as the first woman staff scientist. That same year, she was the first woman allowed to observe at the Palomar Observatory where she notably added a skirt to the men’s bathroom sign to turn it into a gender-neutral facility. Sometimes called the "Mother of Dark Matter," she discovered the supporting evidence for the existence of dark matter by studying the rotation curves of galaxies. An asteroid, a ridge on Mars, and a U.S. observatory have since been named after her.

Rubin was a champion for women in science and a mentor and role model for future generations of astronomers. She pushed for more women to be included at the National Academy of Sciences and even helped to dismantle the men-only policy at the elite Cosmos Club.

Remembering Vera >>

Interview with Vera Rubin >> 

3. Marilyn Fogel

Marilyn Fogel at the Broad Branch Road campus library during the Second Carnegie Origins forum (2018).

Marilyn Fogel is an eco-geologist who joined the Geophysical Laboratory as a staff scientist in 1979 after starting as a Postdoctoral Fellow (1977). She was the second female staff scientist at the lab after Gabrielle Donnay. She was also the first woman to receive the Geochemical Society's Alfred Treibs Medal for her work in organic geochemistry. 

Fogel spent 35.5 years at Carnegie doing groundbreaking research in stable isotope chemistry, which led to breakthroughs in paleo-ecology, modern ecosystem studies, climate change, and astrobiology. Her research shows that we can learn a lot about the past, present, and future world by studying the clues left by previous life here on the Earth. 

Fogel was recently diagnosed with ALS and began a blog and memoir about her experience as a biogeochemist and as a woman in science. It’s an amazing read. 

4. Alycia Weinberger

Alycia Weinberger stands with one of the twin 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory in Chile (2015).

Alycia Weinberger joined the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism as a staff astronomer in 2001. Weinberger uses ground and space telescopes to observe young stars and their protoplanetary disks, the birthplaces of planets. In 1999, Weinberger was one of the first scientists to image these planet-forming disks directly. Ultimately, she aims to understand how the wide variety of planets form around their stars and what, if anything, makes Earth unique.

Notably, Weinberger's time at DTM overlapped with Vera Rubin’s, and she was one of many astronomers who directly benefited from the mentorship of the famed scientist. On Rubin's memorial page, Weinberger writes, "It's impossible for me to express how much her care and mentorship meant over the years. I first met her when we served on a women in science panel in 1990, when I was an undergraduate. She was the first woman astronomer I met." 

Interview with Alycia Weinberger >>

5. Hélène Le Mével

Hélène Le Mével conducting fieldwork at Ambrym volcano (May 2019).

Hélène Le Mével joined the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (now EPL) in 2017. As a geodesist, her research focuses on reading the surface deformation of volcanoes to understand what's happening underground. Using Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR), she has been able to characterize different types of ground motion during volcanic activity. She is currently pioneering the use of gravity as a novel volcano monitoring tool, which she is actively testing at Villarrica volcano in Chile. 

Interview with Hélène Le Mével >> 

6. Sally June Tracy

Materials physicist Sally June Tracy and geodynamicist Peter Driscoll and in the lab.

Sally June Tracy joined the Geophysical Laboratory in 2019, making her the most recent woman to join the team as a staff scientist. Tracy applies cutting edge experimental and analytical techniques to interrogate the fundamental physical behavior of materials under high pressures and temperatures. In particular, she seeks to understand shock metamorphism in samples from natural impact sites and characterize the stability of materials within planets.  

Her approach allows for the never-before-seen real-time dynamic changes to materials at an atomic level. This atomic information informs larger models of how planets form. 

View Sally June Tracy's Website >>

BONUS: Isabelle Lange the Human-Computer

Isabelle Lange joined the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism as a “computer” in the fall of 1940, 25 years before the famed Vera Rubin joined as our first female staff scientist in 1965. Read more about her life and history on our Instagram post.