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Elmegreen to Lead Worldwide Astronomy Group Professor of Astronomy Debra Elmegreen Elected President of International Astronomical Union (IAU)

Debra M. Elmegreen, Professor of Astronomy on the Maria Mitchell Chair and Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has been elected by her peers to lead the largest international organization of astronomers in the world. Elmegreen was named President-elect of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Aug. 30 at the group’s 30th triennial General Assembly in Vienna, Austria.

Debra M. Elmegreen Professor of Astronomy on the Maria Mitchell Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy

Elmegreen had been serving as one of six IAU vice presidents, leading a permanent working group tasked with coordinating international activities on large-scale facilities such as the follow-up to the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to be launched in March 2021. But she said she didn’t expect to be tapped for the presidency. “Vice presidents aren’t often considered for president, so I was somewhat surprised,” she said. “But I had just finished work on an overall strategic plan for the organization, so I think that might have been one reason I was nominated.”

Besides fostering scientific exchanges among astronomers, the IAU has offices that focus on training young astronomers, on outreach and on using astronomy for development. One of Elmegreen’s goals during her tenure as president is to establish a new office that would focus on training high school and elementary school science teachers worldwide. “I’d like to see us develop workshops, suggested curricula, activities and translated material for K-12 teachers in each country to use astronomy as a launching pad for interesting young people in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields,” she said, “because the two things almost all kids love to study are dinosaurs and stars.”

Elmegreen, at the IAU General Assembly in Vienna

Elmegreen has been on the Vassar faculty since 1985, teaching astronomy at all levels. She received her undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Princeton University (the first woman to do so) and her MA and PhD in Astronomy from Harvard University. She was a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellow (the first woman to hold this position) at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena. She was a co-founder of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium, which includes Vassar, Wellesley, Haverford, Swarthmore Wesleyan, Colgate, Williams and Middlebury. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the consortium supports summer research projects for its students and shares pedagogy and research ideas. During her career, she has co-published papers with more than 75 students. Last January, Elmegreen won the American Astronomical Society’s George van Biesbroeck Prize, awarded every two years to an American astronomer for outstanding service in the field.

She says astronomy continues to be popular among Vassar students. “The number of majors has remained fairly constant in the years I ‘ve been here,” Elmegreen said, “but the introductory classes are always full and we get students with a wide range of other majors, now more than 200 every year.”