Nancy Grace Roman

Long before there was a program called Women@NASA, Dr. Nancy Grace Roman was paving the path for women at NASA. She was the first Chief of Astronomy in the Office of Space Science. In her role, she successfully managed numerous astronomy-based projects including the Hubble Space Telescope. At the age of 88, Dr. Roman speaks eloquently and intelligently with a passion to encourage young women to pursue careers in science and engineering. Below are brief excerpts from past interviews.

Where are you from?
I was born in Nashville, Tenn., but I have lived in a number of places. In 1937, I moved to Baltimore, Md. where I attended junior high and high school. I lived there for five years before leaving for college. Since 1955 I have lived in the Washington, DC area.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
One of my favorite moments in my career was when I realized that I had discovered something important that no one had ever suspected. Upon careful inspection of low dispersion spectra of bright stars similar to the sun, I noticed that compared to the strength of the hydrogen lines, the strengths of the lines of other elements varied from star to star. When I divided the stars into two groups on the basis of line strengths, I noticed that the stars with the stronger lines moved around the center of the Milky Way in circular orbits similar to that of the sun. The others tended to move in more elliptical orbits and to stray farther from the plane of the galaxy. This was the first indication that common stars were not all the same age. These other elements are made in stars and hence increase in abundance as stars die.

Who inspired you?
It was probably my parents who inspired me most. My father was a scientist and answered my scientific questions while my mother took me on walks and showed me birds and plants. She also took me out at night and showed me the constellations and the aurora.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
My career was quite unusual so my main advice to someone interested in a career similar to my own is to remain open to change and new opportunities. 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.

Biography

Dr Roman is a true inspiration to the students of today. Raised in a time when women were discouraged from pursuing a science career, she not only succeeded in establishing herself in a scientific career but also she left a legacy for future astronomers. Often called the “Mother of Hubble” for her efforts in making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality, Dr. Roman was instrumental in establishing the new era of space-based astronomical instrumentation. She received her undergraduate degree at Swarthmore College in 1946 and her PhD in astronomy at the University of Chicago in 1949. She joined NASA in 1959 within a few months after its inception and set up the astronomy program.