Prof. Beatriz Barbuy, 2009 Laureate for her work on the formation and evolution of galaxies
“For her work on the chemical composition of old stars and its relevance to the formation and evolution of galaxies.”
Education: University of Paris (Ph.D. 1982) Country of residence: Brazil Research institution: University of São Paulo, Brazil
Who She Is Professor Barbuy was born in Brazil, and received her doctorate degree from the University of Paris in 1982. She is currently a Full Professor at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. Throughout her career, Professor Barbuy has held numerous influential scientific posts in both her home country and abroad, including President of the Sociedade Astronômica Brasileira (1992-1994) and Brazilian Representative for the National Science Foundation’s Gemini Project (1998-2002) through the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. Over past five years, in particular, Professor Barbuy has emerged as an international leader in her field; she has been awarded Brazil’s Order Nacional do Mérioto Científico (2005), and has been elected as a member of the French Academy of Science (2005) and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS, 2007). As the Vice President of the International Astronomical Union, Professor Barbuy has worked with UNESCO and the UN to establish 2009 as the official “International Year of Astronomy”. She is also the co-chair of the triennial General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2009.
What She Does Beatriz Barbuy is an eminent astrophysicist who has made a major contribution to the study of the evolution of the chemical composition of the stars. She was the first to demonstrate that metal-poor stars in the galactic halo have an overabundance of oxygen relative to iron, and she is interested in the implications of galaxy formation. What That Means… Studying the metals in stars gives astronomers information about their history. In astronomy, unlike in chemistry, the term “metals” refers to any element heavier than hydrogen or helium, which were the only two elements produced in abundance during the formation of the first generation of stars (the Big Bang). All of the heavier elements (“metals”) were subsequently produced by nuclear fusions, and with each new generation of stars, their “metallicity” increases. Thus, by determining the “metallicity” of a star, Professor Barbuy can also determine its approximate age, and shed light on the formation of the Milky Way. This kind of research is a key to understanding the first stars in the universe, and to bringing important conclusions to questions of galaxy formation and evolution studies. Astronomers use spectroscopy to separate light from the stars into wavelength spectra. Professor Barbuy is an expert in both observational astronomy and the interpretation of spectroscopic data, and has studied many different samples of stars using several telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Professor Barbuy’s research has allowed her to calculate a large library of theoretical spectra that can be combined with libraries of observed spectra, including spectra for 1,000 stars recently collected at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) project, which is extremely useful to other astronomers in her field. Moreover, in her capacity as the Vice-President of the International Astronomical Union, Professor Barbuy has actively promoted the role of science in society. Her leadership within the international scientific community is exemplary, and reflects her eminence as a researcher, teacher, and leader.
INTERVIEW – In Her Own Words
The highest branch is closest to the stars “When I was a child, I used to climb a yellow plum tree where the highest branch was mine; my brothers had the stronger lower branches. After school and before dinner, I would go there to contemplate the sky,” says Beatriz Barbuy. “Although science was not really part of my childhood, the connection with astronomy may have started there.” When she was 16 she read George Gamow’s One, Two, Three … Infinity, a book her brother won at school, and decided to become an astronomer. “My father always insisted that I should have a career, and should not depend financially on others, so I knew that I should work hard,” she explains. “My parents were university professors in philosophy and sociology, which clearly induced me to think in terms of an intellectual career.”
Challenges and satisfactions “Until 1979, a law designed to protect the national computer industry made it illegal to import computers in Brazil, and there were huge difficulties for doing science in the 1980s. Because it was necessary to travel abroad to use computers, I believe that my personal life was sacrificed,” she says. The decision to go abroad for her PhD work was also very difficult, as was the adaptation to her host country, France. “The first three years were not at all easy. At the time, Brazil was a dictatorship, and a poor country, so that I was not always so well treated.” Despite the obstacles she encountered, her research was a constant source of motivation. “Astrophysics involves working at the frontier of knowledge, as well as in the frontier of technology for data acquisition. One has the impression of reaching the frontier and going beyond, which should lead to new revelations and scenarios,” she explains. “Science is clearly the most important investment for essentially all aspects of life: there is no need to mention medicine, pharmacology and engineering. Astronomy has also contributed to the well-being of humanity in numerous ways,” she says. Not least among them is the sense of wonder it provokes: “The inspiration that astronomy provides is important as well. It brings fascination to many.”
Need to “do more” All other things being equal, “women have to do more than men to be recognized at the same level. Working in a field dominated by men means relations with male colleagues are not always easy, maybe because men are not used to competing with women.” She points out that women, even when few, are “hard workers and productive, which probably gives them greater visibility.” Beatriz Barbuy has witnessed significant change since she began her career. “There are many more women professionals in all fields, so that fewer people dare to discourage them. In science, with a computer and Internet connection you can work at home, which means you can be much more efficient and more comfortably balance work and family obligations.” At the same time, she does not understand why there are still so few women scientists. “This may be due to some sort of obscurantism that, unfortunately, seems to have grown in a lot of countries lately,” she says. What advice would she offer to women interested in science today? “Go ahead and make the necessary effort. It is clear that one accumulates knowledge in one’s everyday dedication to work, and therefore dedication is needed on a constant basis over the years.”