It was while studying at Newnham College, Cambridge University that Dr. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin attended a lecture where her interest in astronomy was sparked. And that spark lead to a change in our understanding of our entire universe.
After completing her studies she meet two major road blocks due to her gender. She was not awarded a degree from Cambridge and she found that she would not be allowed to continue her astronomical studies in England. Instead she traveled to America where she had been offered the second fellowship of its kind to study at Harvard Observatory.
Encouraged to complete a doctorate by the lab’s director, she undertook a study on relating the spectral classes of stars to their actual temperatures by using ionization theory. She was able to show the greater variation of stellar absorption lines was due to differing amounts of ionization at different temperatures. Moreover she was able to conclude that hydrogen was the most abundant element in stars and accordingly in the entire universe. Earning her doctorate in 1925 she continued her work studying different types of stars including high variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds in order to determine paths of stellar evolution which laid the basis for all subsequent work on variable stars.
Spending her entire career at Harvard, she still faced many of the same prejudices as those women working at the observatory before her. She spent over ten years working under the title technical assistant and it wasn’t until there was a change in the head of the program that she was given the title of astronomer. In 1946 she was finally promoted to full professor, the first woman to hold this title as part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. When she was later appointed as Chair of the Department of Astronomy she was the first woman to be the head of a department at the school. Many have credited her with helping to break down barriers for women in the sciences serving as a role model and inspiration for young girls wanting to pursue careers in STEM fields.
Written by Angela Goad