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Vassar astronomy professor Debra Elmegreen met with Pope Benedict XVI during the Vatican Observatory's International Year of Astronomy.

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY--Debra Elmegreen, the Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy and Department Chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and president-elect of the American Astronomical Society, attended the Vatican Observatory's celebration of the International Year of Astronomy this fall (October 30 - 31, 2009). Only 50 astronomers from around the world were in attendance and Elmegreen was there representing the American Astronomical Society.

Elmegreen noted that her students "were very excited about this since the Pope sent back his greetings to them." She met with the Pope Benedict XVI during a private audience.

The celebration was in honor of the wonders of astronomical discovery and noted the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's first astronomical observations. The astronomers in attendance had private tours of the Tower of the Winds; the Secret Archives, where the Inquisition papers are stored; as well as private viewings of original documents by Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and others. They also visited the Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Pope and the newly inaugurated headquarters of the Vatican Observatory.

About Debra Elmegreen

Last year Elmegreen was elected the 43rd president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). She is the first AAS president from a liberal arts college in the 110-year history of the organization, whose membership includes approximately 7700 astronomers throughout North America. A noted investigator of galaxies, Elmegreen will serve as president-elect of AAS until May 2010, when she will assume the two-year presidency of the organization of professional astronomers, through 2012. She is succeeding Dr. John P. Huchra of Harvard University.

Like Maria Mitchell, the celebrated astronomer whom Vassar hired as its first professor in 1865, Elmegreen is a pioneer in her field. The first woman to graduate with a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from Princeton in 1975, Elmegreen also was the first woman to be awarded a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellowship for research at the Palomar Observatory in California.

As chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from 1991-97, Elmegreen led efforts to advocate for women's rights in astronomy. She also served as chair of the Space Telescope Users' Committee from 2002-05. Recently, Elmegreen was appointed by the National Academy of Sciences to the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey Committee, whose role will be to set national astronomy goals and priorities for the next decade.

Astronomy at Vassar College

Maria Mitchell, who was America's first woman astronomer and the first director of Vassar's observatory, helped to shape the way astronomy is taught at Vassar. She was famous for pushing her students to think for themselves, do their own research, and come to their own conclusions. She believed that students work best when they are part of a supportive scientific community. (Mitchell's telescope is now on display at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC.)

The astronomy faculty at Vassar is committed to the same principles, and provides many opportunities to students in the department. The astronomy curriculum includes introductory and advanced astrophysics courses with topics covering planets, stars, interstellar matter, galaxies, and cosmology, and observational techniques (http://physicsandastronomy.vassar.edu/astronomy.html).

Class of 1951 Observatory at Vassar College

The Class of 1951 Observatory houses two of the largest telescopes in New York State, a 20-inch and a 32-inch reflector, which are housed in separate domes and are equipped with research-grade electronic cameras. The observatory also has three spectrographs and smaller telescopes that include a Coronado solar telescope and an historic 8-inch refractor. The Observatory supports Vassar coursework, public education, and professional research in astronomy. Ongoing research includes programs monitoring the brightness and colors of active galactic nuclei, and measuring the chemical abundances of unusual stars in the Milky Way.

Visitors from the community are welcome at the observatory for open nights on Wednesday nights from 9-11pm during the academic year, weather permitting. If uncertain about weather conditions or the viewing schedule, please contact the Department of Physics and Astronomy at (845) 437-7340 before 4:30pm, or call the observatory at (845) 437-7679 after 8:45pm (http://physicsandastronomy.vassar.edu/observatory.html).

Individuals with disabilities requiring accommodations or information on accessibility should contact Campus Activities Office at (845) 437-5370. Without sufficient notice, appropriate space and/or assistance may not be available. Directions to the Vassar campus are available at www.vassar.edu/directions.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, December 21, 2009