This Astronomer Had to Make the Hardest Career Choice

July 16, 2014
Beatrice Tinsley

Beatrice Tinsley, image via Wikipedia

Imagine if you and your partner were both brilliant minds in the same field, but because you were refused any official academic appointment near home, you had to choose between your family and your career. This was a reality less than 40 years ago for Beatrice Tinsley, the first recipient of the AAUW Annie Jump Cannon Award for astronomy.

Raised in New Zealand, Tinsley loved math and physics from a young age. She was the first girl in 20 years to apply for and earn her high school’s math scholarship. She changed gears while attending New Zealand’s University of Canterbury in 1958, writing to her parents that while “pure math is rather a farce … physics is really super.” She also noted that there were fewer than 10 girls in her lecture classes, which had more than 100 students. Tinsley spent the rest of her career being one of the very few women in the classroom.

After college, Tinsley married a fellow physicist. The new family moved to the United States after Tinsley’s husband accepted a position at the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies (now part of the University of Texas, Dallas). Tinsley decided to pursue her doctorate at the University of Texas, Austin, where she was the only female doctorate student in astronomy. Though her research on the study of the evolution of galaxies was revolutionary for her time, she was unable to find a permanent academic position in Dallas or Austin. But AAUW noticed her work and gave her the Cannon Award, an AAUW effort to recognize women under 35 with “potential for significant research in [the] field of astronomy.”

After receiving the award as well as multiple invitations to lecture at universities across the country, Tinsley applied to be the head of the astronomy department at the Southwest Center. Despite her large contributions to the creation of the department, her application was essentially ignored.

When Yale called her in 1975, she faced a tough decision: divorce her husband and leave Texas, or stay and sacrifice her career. The choice highlights how far women’s options have come. Today women in the workforce have more support when it comes to balancing a family and a career (though the balance is by no means perfect). Back then, Tinsley was forced to choose between the two.

In the end, Tinsley chose her career. At Yale she flourished, contributing significantly to Yale’s research in the formation and evolution of stars and galaxies. But in 1978, just as she was awarded full professorship and tenure, tragedy struck in the form of melanoma. She passed away just a few years later in 1981 at the age of 40. Her academic career lasted a mere 14 years, but during that time she published nearly 100 papers.

It did not take long for Tinsley’s legacy to be remembered and honored. In 1983 the University of Texas, Austin, established the Beatrice M. Tinsley Centennial Visiting Professorship in Astronomy. Additionally, the American Astronomical Society created the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize in 1986, a biennial award for outstanding research in astronomy or astrophysics.

Despite trailblazers like Tinsley, the field of astronomy continues to be male dominated. Slowly this may be changing. According to Tinsley, in the 1960s about 2 percent of the entire faculty at the University of Texas, Dallas, was women. As of 2010, 19 percent of astronomy faculty members were women — a 5 percent increase from 2003.

Tinsley made strides in both academia and equality for women in the workplace. She was a brilliant student who advanced astronomy through her research, and she was unafraid to be assertive in pursuing her dreams, even at great personal cost. This bright, independent woman is a role model in the continuing fight for workplace equality.

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants intern Lara Fu. 


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