BY JANET TOBIN
For those who lack the "right stuff" to blast off into space--but revel in John Glenn's return to orbit, Sojourner's stint on Mars, and Obi-Wan Kenobi's Force--the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is making it easy to see billions of light years from earth. With an Internet connection, you can now download images taken by Hubble's cameras as the telescope orbits the earth, "visiting" spiral and elliptical galaxies filled with dust, gas, and billions of stars. You're also likely to come across colliding galaxies, black holes, quasars, stars being born, and volcanoes erupting on nearby planetary satellites.
The Hubble Space Telescope, a space-based observatory used by the international astronomical community, is a cooperative program of the European Space Agency and NASA. Melissa A. McGrath '77, Molly Shea Martinez '85, and Beth A. Perriello '97 work at Baltimore's Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the agency responsible for conducting and coordinating the science operations of Hubble, and Ellyne K. Kinney '91 just left there after seven years. Each alumna staff member has played a different role in the Hubble's operation--that is, when they aren't busy running the Mount Holyoke Club of Baltimore.
Melissa McGrath has been principal investigator on nine Hubble programs over the past eight years. She specializes in planetary science research, particularly focusing on Jupiter and its moons, and was a member of the Hubble team that observed the comet Shoemaker-Levy's impacts with Jupiter in 1994. McGrath has lectured worldwide on her results.
She also serves as a contact scientist in support of other Hubble principal investigators. Before conducting research using Hubble, an astronomer must submit a proposal and undergo a rigorous review process. If the astronomer is awarded time on Hubble, he or she is assigned a contact scientist and a program coordinator, STScI staff who help implement and schedule their work. McGrath is assigned to work with a particular astronomer based on her expertise in the applicant's research area and her understanding of the particular Hubble instrument (there are five) the astronomer plans to use. McGrath provides advice on observing strategies, makes sure the instrument is performing properly, and may assist with data analysis once the observation is complete.
As an MHC senior, Beth Perriello learned from Ellyne Kinney about an opening at STScI for a program coordinator; she got the job right after her 1997 graduation. Perriello now helps astronomers prepare proposals that are compatible with Hubble's systems and assists with execution, so researchers' Hubble observations are glitch-free.
"A really important part of my job is to communicate with astronomers outside STScI," Perriello says. "By attending a liberal arts college, and taking so many courses outside my [astrophysics] major, I gained this type of experience. I learned to convey my ideas in a way other people could understand." Her most complex project occurred last year; it involved working with several proposals relating to Hubble Deep Field South, a ten-day observation of never-before-seen galaxies in the constellation Tucana.
Perriello is taking graduate courses at Johns Hopkins and feels ready for graduate school. "Since MHC has a wonderful observatory right on campus, I was able to do my own research. I could take my own data, reduce it, and analyze it. I gained experience that most students don't get until graduate school," she notes.
A double major in astronomy and physics at MHC, Molly Shea Martinez felt well prepared academically for the graduate studies in astronomy she began at the University of Wyoming in 1985. But she wasn't prepared for the negative attitude toward women scientists among the men in her classes. "I wouldn't have stuck with graduate school without the positive reinforcement I received at MHC. The male students tried hard not to take women in the department seriously. Because of my MHC training and the confidence it gave me, I hung in there."
After earning her master's degree in 1989, Martinez accepted a position at STScI. Initially, she worked with the team developing Hubble's prelaunch and launch activities schedule, later playing a key role in the development of the institute's long-range planning software system, which is vital for efficient utilization of the telescope satellite.
Currently, Martinez is a senior proposal coordinator and a principal member of the management team responsible for the solicitation of proposals, as well as the peer review and time allocation processes for Hubble. Martinez is now on family leave, having given birth to daughter Elinor Rose in December 1998.
In March, Ellyne Kinney joined the Astronomy Research Consortium as an observer at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. At STScI, she most recently served as software administrator for Space Telescope Science Data Analysis, a software package astronomers use to process images and spectra that come from the telescope and to automatically calibrate the data after they are transmitted from Hubble to earth.
At MHC, Kinney was an astronomy teaching assistant and worked on an independent project using a spectrograph and Smith College's sixteen-inch telescope. "I had the benefit of taking all my physics and liberal arts courses in small classes with mostly women students. This gave me a chance to learn in a nondistracting environment and to see that I could work though complex problems on my own," she says. "My astronomy classes [through the Five College Astronomy Department] were small and coed. In my experience, male students are more assertive in the classroom. Since I had both coed and single-sex classes, I was able to recognize the differences and develop a way to make myself heard. This is a skill that has served me very well in my career."
When it comes to exploring the universe, MHC graduates are in the vanguard--one small step for man, one giant step for womankind.