Dark Matter, Bright Stars: From Vera Cooper Rubin to Katie Bouman


Several decades separate Vera Cooper Rubin’s work from Katie Bouman’s, but the two scientists are credited for bringing some of the most mysterious aspects of our universe to light. 

The respective journeys of these two phenomenal women and their scientific work on some of the darkest objects in our known universe indicate how far women in tech and science have come, and how far there is left to go.


Who is Vera Cooper Rubin?

Many of us might not know who Vera Rubin is, but we’re probably familiar with her work. The astronomer Vera Rubin shifted people’s perceptions of the universe by proving that galaxies are mostly made up of what’s known as dark matter. Dark matter makes up 80% of the universe’s matter, and is detectable only by its gravitational effect. Vera’s groundbreaking work on dark matter serves as the basis for much of today’s astronomical research. While scientists are still unsure of what exactly the matter is made of, they do know that dark matter is what holds the galaxies and stars together. 

Vera’s journey was not easy. Despite her success, she had a rough time finding her own path in a male-dominated discipline. She was the only astronomy graduate of Vassar College, an all-women institution in New York, in 1948. When she tried applying for Princeton for her post-graduate studies, they refused her because the astronomy program didn’t accept female students. Unfazed, she proceeded to attend Cornell and Georgetown universities instead.

Vera was the first woman allowed in the famous Palomar Observatory. When she saw that the only bathroom in the building was labeled “MEN,” she drew a woman in a skirt and pasted it over the door. During the early part of her career, her research was widely unaccepted by her colleagues. Her master’s thesis on the motions of the galaxies was very controversial, while her doctoral thesis was widely ignored. Wanting to avoid contentious topics, she began researching the rotation of galaxies, which is what led to her discovery of dark matter. Aside from her breakthroughs on the topic of dark matter, she also spent much of her life advocating for women in science and technology. 


The Bright Achievements of Katie Bouman

Fast forward to 2019, and we see how Katie Bouman is carving out a path similar to Vera. The Guardian reported that Katie is one of the leading scientists behind the first direct image of a black hole, a project she’s been working on for six years. Katie’s fame was realized when a photo taken of her beaming triumphantly as the image of a black hole on her computer screen went viral. 

Katie earned her PhD in computer science and artificial intelligence from MIT. It was during her fellowship that she started working on the algorithm that would eventually lead to the revolutionary image of a supermassive black hole. Similar to Vera, Katie is entrenched in another male-dominated field, and her recent popularity made her a target of sexist attacks. Trolls started cropping up and posting misogynistic comments, questioning her contribution to the project. Similar to what Vera faced, Katie’s credibility as a scientist was questioned because she was a woman. Despite these attacks, Katie went on to tell her story at the TED stage, saying “I’d like to encourage all of you to go out and help push the boundaries of science, even if it may at first seem as mysterious to you as a black hole.”

Striving for Equality in Tech and Science

Vera’s early scientific work has contributed greatly to Katie’s accomplishments. More than that, her achievements as a female pioneer in her field inspired people like Katie to venture into a male-dominated disciplines and use their talents to make sense of the universe. 

The numbers show that those talents, however, are often undervalued. Nature revealed that there is currently a $18,000 pay gap between male and female PhD researchers starting their careers. In a study of 50,000 recipients of research-related PhDs, men were found to have an expected median wage at their first job of $88,000; for female researchers in their first positions, the median was $70,000. 

The science industry is a lucrative field: the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that median pay for computer and information research scientists is about $118,000. Yet, despite the large sums of money, it is still not being distributed equitably. This must change, as women scientists continue to contribute to our knowledge about the universe. 

Similarly, this pay gap in the industry exists for the LGBTQ community as well, with more pronounced gaps in certain instances. For example, the Williams Institute highlighted the 10%-32% pay gap for gay and bisexual men compared to similarly qualified heterosexual men in America.

Those who identify outside of the binary of male and female genders face a different kind of discrimination, which can range from constant teasing to sexual harassment in the workplace. The fight for gender equality in the scientific community should include these members of the spectrum, who only want to contribute their talents and efforts like everyone else.

Although we’ve collectively accomplished a lot when it comes to women and the LGBTQ community in science and tech—with icons like Sally Ride or Alan Turing for the latter—there’s still a long way to go. With courageous scientists like Vera and Katie taking the lead, however, the possibilities of what equality and diversity can accomplish are as vast as the universe.

Article written by Reese Jones
Exclusively for pdxwit.org

Reese Jones is a physicist and freelance writer who is passionate about bringing science closer to the people. Her dedication shows in her pieces that mix real-life issues with hardcore scientific topics that inspire women and girls who love science. When she’s not curled up with a book or researching the latest developments in the field, you’ll find her jogging in the local park with her French bulldog, Lucy.

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