MHC and a Career in Astronomy

Dr. Gretchen L.H. Harris

Dr. Harris on a boat in College Fjord with Holyoke glacier in the background

Gretchen Luft Harris Ph.D. ’63, Researcher

Major: astronomy

Internship: research assistant for Sidney van den Bergh, University of Toronto

Advanced Degrees: M.A., Wesleyan; Ph.D., University of Toronto

I wanted to be an astronomer from an early age so, when it came time to choose a college, I applied only to ones offering a major in astronomy. Since Mount Holyoke was at the top of my list, I was thrilled when the acceptance letter came along with the offer of a much-needed scholarship. College life suited me and I made friends in both my dorm (Abbey freshman year) and classes. By sophomore year my closest “buddies” included people majoring in math, French, history, music. For me, that was a special part of the MHC experience – being able to talk and play with classmates who knew nothing about astronomy and frankly didn’t care. In addition to my studies, I sang in the choir and did lighting for stage productions including, of course, junior show. There was one other astronomy major in the class of 1963, also named Gretchen, and we spent lots of time together in class and on the road to other campuses. We were among the first students in the Four College (now Five) Astronomy Program and took several courses in Amherst at UMass and Amherst College. The range of courses was fairly broad but somewhat classical including celestial mechanics and statistical mechanics (more interesting to me but somewhat abstract).

Investigating Star Clusters in other Galaxies

Fifty years ago astronomy was much more classical and more connected to mathematics than physics and thus my physics education was more limited than would be the case today. Of course, computers were still mostly people and not machines, though I did get exposure to mainframe computers during my masters and doctoral studies. Today computing, physics, chemistry, and even biology are essential elements of the astronomical toolkit. The large 4-m class optical telescopes were just being planned in the 1960's and, other than radio astronomy, the field was restricted to optical wavelengths. So it is not surprising that my research has used the tools of optical astronomy, both photometry, and spectroscopy.

My interest in star clusters began when I worked as a research assistant for Sidney van den Bergh at the University of Toronto where my husband was pursuing a Ph.D. We met as M.A. candidates at Wesleyan University and married after graduation. My Toronto boss, later Ph.D. supervisor, was one of the first astronomers to use the new facilities at the Cerro Tololo Observatory and his observations of the Magellanic Cloud clusters formed the basis of one of my first major publications. It also began the investigation of star clusters in other galaxies, now a large and still growing field. When I wasn’t doing data reduction for specific projects I began to collect information on what we knew about open clusters in the Milky Way. That led to the publication of the “Blue Box” or, more formally, An Atlas of Open Cluster Colour-Magnitude Diagrams, Publications of the David Dunlap Observatory, Volume 4 (Hagen: 1970).

After my husband (Peter Hagen) died, I went back to school to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. My thesis consisted of a study of evolved stars in open clusters, combining CMDs for clusters of similar age in order to trace their evolutionary path after they left the main sequence. During this time I met and married fellow student Bill Harris and we moved to Yale for two wonderful postdoctoral years. Then came the move to Hamilton, Ontario where Bill took up a position as one of the first two astronomers at McMaster University. We have lived in Hamilton ever since, with the consequence that I have spent most of my life in Canada and am now proudly and happily a Canadian citizen.

I found part time work at the beginning, but that was interrupted by the birth of our twin daughters in 1978. Eventually, I obtained a half-time position at the University of Waterloo, 75 kilometers from our Hamilton home. People often wondered why I had a half time, not full time, position and my answer has always been that I didn’t want to work more than 40 hours/week – especially when my job required such a commute each day. I later learned that I was the first part-time, tenure-track faculty member hired at Waterloo. I was also the first tenured female faculty member in my department, then Physics but now Physics and Astronomy.

Astronomy continues to change and surprise

As I have mentioned, astronomy has changed greatly since I was a Mount Holyoke undergrad – in both what we know and how we learn. My first-year astronomy textbook (Astronomy, Robert Baker 1960) devotes only 30 out of more than 500 pages to galaxies beyond our own. Our tools have advanced enormously. We now have the ability to observe in virtually all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum and the telescopes we use are both on the ground and in space. Each time we have eyes in a new part of the spectrum we are surprised by what we learn. Advances in computers allow us to analyze large datasets and simulate the formation of stars, galaxies, and the universe.

Fifty years ago binary stars were passé but now we use them to explore exotic stages of stellar evolution. We didn’t know about dark matter and dark energy and black holes and exoplanets and neutron stars. And even I, in my work on globular star clusters, have demonstrated clear connections between these old stellar objects and both black holes and dark matter. Astronomy is more capable than ever of astonishing us (Dark Matter Halos and Globular Cluster Populations: 2017). And, increasingly, I listen to those who say we know everything about anything with great skepticism.

Lasting friendships with "uncommon" women

When I reflect on my time at Mount Holyoke, I realize more and more that it suited me. I met people from all parts of the U.S., took classes in a wide range of subjects, benefited from professors who cared about me and that I learn to the best of my ability, and grew as a person from this new and challenging but non-threatening existence. I still have fast friends from that time and reunions matter to all of us. With each reunion and class gathering, I am making friends with classmates I barely knew. Something intangible about the Holyoke experience has seeped into us all. My first-year roommate and I still have lots to talk about even though we went in different directions, academically and where we chose to live. And, although I love living in Canada and being Canadian, I do regret that it has made regular get-togethers with MHC classmates much harder.

That intangible MHC effect has led to friendships with women from other classes, both older and younger than I. One example is Helen Sawyer Hogg, a legendary Holyoke graduate who was a professor at the University of Toronto when I was a student. Another remarkable example is the presence of fellow “uncommon women” at the University of Waterloo. In an institution with the lowest % of female faculty in Canada, there were 4 (yes 4!) faculty, who were Mount Holyoke graduates: in geography, classics, biology, and physics. And remember this is a Canadian university I am talking about. What does this say about Mount Holyoke? Well, for starters, Mount Holyoke is a place where women are encouraged to pursue their goals and this means beyond college. Our small group of Waterloo uncommon women got together regularly for several years until retirements got in the way. We enjoyed being together – just because.

It’s hard to summarize what MHC has meant to me, but it was formative, supportive for me in the beginning of my career, and a source of lasting friendships.