Darby Dyar

Professor of Astronomy - Mount Holyoke College


North Central High School, Indianapolis, IN

Wellesley College




Where are you from?

I am from Indianapolis, Ind.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

My father was an engineer who worked on gas turbine engines at General Motors in Indianapolis his entire career. My father was a part of the team that built the Apollo lunar landers. Our family watched the landings with pride, knowing that he had a hand in their construction.

However, it was not until many years later, at the age of 21, when Roger Burns at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) handed me a lunar sample that I was hooked. I rapidly abandoned my plans to be a field geologist, and decided to become a geochemist and study planetary materials.

How did you end up working in the space program?

I grew up in the 1960s, at a time when you only had to take a single science course to graduate from high school. I therefore took biology in ninth grade -- I then thought that I was done with science for life!

However, out of sheer stubbornness, I persevered in math and took calculus as a senior. The boys laughed at me every time I put my hand up in class, but my teacher helped me find a voice. I learned a lot from that experience about survival skills in an all-male class, which came in handy later on. The first time I saw a woman scientist was when I was 19 years old, so I never imagined science as a career option for me.

I attended Wellesley College, which is an all-women liberal arts college, where I decided to major in art history. During my sophomore year, my advisor gently reminded me that I needed to fulfill a science course. I asked around to find out which one was the easiest, and reluctantly enrolled in Geology 101. The first day of class I slunk into the lecture hall and planted myself in the back row with a disinterested expression. My expression rapidly changed when a woman walked in and gave a knock-your-eyes-out great lecture full of slides of cool geology with succinct explanations. (That professor, Meg Thompson, eventually became a good friend and an inspiration.) So I took another geology course, and another, and ended up with a double-major.

My life as a planetary scientist began in the middle of my senior year when I was looking for a job to bring in a little extra money. One of my Wellesley professors directed me to Roger Burns at MIT, who was looking for someone who could do lab work (on lunar samples!) and computer programming. This went so well that Roger talked me into applying to MIT for graduate school and NASA supplied the funding for a cool Ph.D. project involving cooling rates of lunar glasses, so I became a geochemist instead of an art historian!

Who inspired you?

Meg Thompson inspired me; she was my first and best-ever geology professor. I also had other wonderful mentors at Wellesley College, including my art professors who encouraged me to pursue both an avocation and a profession. I was closely supported by Roger Burns and Charles Guidotti, both dear friends and great sources of support -- and both lost too soon to cancer. George Rossman (at Caltech) is always there for me to give scientific advice. Jerry Delaney of Rutgers University has been a long-term source of support.

I have often wished for more women mentors as I've progressed through my career but they are few and far between. My generation of women scientists has had to make it up as we go along! Perhaps the fact that I had so little help is what inspired me to mentor and help improve the lot of others.

What is a Professor of Astronomy?

Mount Holyoke College, which is an all-women liberal arts college, is a wonderful place for me. My job here is explicitly about education, and doing research is a way to serve that mission by informing and inspiring my teaching. It is wonderful to be training the next generation of scientifically-literate individuals.

Before Holyoke, I was a professor of geology at the University of Oregon in Eugene. When I started teaching there in 1986, the chair explained to me that my emphasis should be on research, grant-writing and graduate education; teaching and undergraduate students were to be lower on my scale of priorities. I was never very comfortable with that situation. One of my students once looked at my 16-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week life as a scientist and said, "Darby, I respect you, but I really don't want to be like you." This really shook me up, and I resolved to make some changes in my life. So I'm very grateful for the balance and flexibility that being at Mount Holyoke brings to my life and to my career.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

The last time I taught mineralogy was in 2006. I taught it as a studio course: two three-hour sessions each week in the laboratory. I used my own textbook and a new pedagogy (for me) called "spiral learning" for the class. There was something special about the synergy in that class and those 11 extraordinary women, who have all gone on to graduate school in various professions. A few years later, they came back for a reunion, and we gathered in my lab for a celebration. We all re-connected instantly. That was the moment when I realized that my students will be my most important legacy, far outshining my hundreds of scientific publications.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

If you want to study the solar system, build your work in planetary science on a firm foundation of terrestrial geology and/or extrasolar astronomy. If you want a job in academia, this is a necessity for finding and keeping a job. Diversify your funding sources among NASA, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Training yourself to be an expert in a single technique can be risky because it can lead to becoming a one-trick pony. Try not to overspecialize. It's far better to build a reputation as someone who asks interesting scientific questions and then teaches herself the techniques needed to answer those questions in creative, original and integrative ways.

You're never too young to spend time mentoring others to help them become scientists. These gestures will end up coming back to you in unexpected and wonderful ways.

Be a good scientific citizen. For every paper you submit, agree to review two others. For every proposal, review four. Organize a conference (once in your career). Become an associate editor for a journal, and serve until you've handled more papers than you think you'll ever write. Lead a committee in your professional society. Serve on review panels when asked (and when possible). Learn from all these experiences! Do all these things at times in your career when your other commitments are fewer, so that when life gets busier, you'll still feel that you've done your share.

If you're passionate about science, then you'll need to resist the temptation to do it 24 hours a day! To stay sane, become (if you aren't already) a well-rounded human being, with authentic and supportive relationships with family and friends. Cultivate and prioritize having hobbies and a life outside your profession that includes things you do to take care of yourself and others. Of all the things I learned from working with Roger Burns, this lesson was the most important.

Another thing I learned from Roger Burns: treat everyone the same. Although he was a senior professor at MIT, Roger interacted with everyone from the janitor, to his students, to his colleagues with respect, caring and humility. He was always a gentleman, and he had high standards for professionalism.

Persistence matters. I was 44 years old when I finally got tenure (after teaching for 17 years).

Never collaborate with people you don't like, or who can't accept you for what you are.

It's OK to put priorities relating to your personal life ahead of those of your professional life -- as long as you realize that there will be consequences (sometimes heartbreaking ones!). The hardest thing I ever did was quit my job on the verge of tenure to relocate 300 miles away so I could live full-time in the same town as my husband and kids (then aged one and three years old). But it was an easy and obvious decision that I will never regret.

When it comes to balancing all the competing demands of a busy life, someone once told me to "throw money at the problem." I know a woman who not only pays someone to clean her house, but also hires a cook to come three days a week to make dinner so she can spend time with her kids in those critical few hours after daycare ends. Hire a student to drive carpools for you when possible. Your sanity is worth the financial cost.

Learn to be flexible and always be prepared. Adapt your career to your situation in life, and manage your work time wisely so as to maximize your family time. Save up some extra data when you're pregnant so you'll have something to write up after your baby is born. Deliver your kids to daycare the minute it opens, and pick them up at closing time so you can get the most work done while they are otherwise happily engaged, and can then devote time to them exclusively when you are home. Always have with you a paper or proposal to review while you're waiting in line to pick up your kids. Set aside a less-urgent project to do on the days when you're home with a sick child. Do your grading at the kitchen table next to your kids while they are doing their homework (misery loves company!). Bring your laptop so you can work while your elderly parents doze in the nursing home and still be there when they wake up again.

Finally, accept the fact that you really can't do it all to perfection. This isn't easy. Decide what's most important in your life, and set your priorities to reflect those decisions. There are many times when my life is simply out of control, but I've learned to have faith in the way I've ordered my priorities and just stick to working down my list, starting with what's most important. Learn when to strive for perfection and when an 80% effort is good enough.

Plan for chaos: don't let things like abstracts, proposal reviews or presentations wait until the last minute, because that invites disaster. Pay a little more and buy refundable/changeable plane tickets (or fly Southwest!). Always have a back-up plan.

What do you do for fun?

I enjoy spending time with my own children, my extended family and my friends. Just hanging out or cooking together is a great way to get together. Having breakfast or going shopping with my two women geologist friends is always fun. I love walking my dog and being outside every single day. Some of my hobbies include riding my bike around the beautiful valley where I live, tending my garden and my bird feeders, making art quilts, and reading mystery novels.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

Think about science and engineering as broadly as possible. The world needs educated citizens who support science in many ways -- journalism, law, business, etc. Seek out ways to become scientifically and quantitatively literate, and apply that knowledge to whatever your chosen field becomes.

If you're really a person who lives and breathes science, then take as much science as you can in high school -- this will boost your success in introductory classes at the college level, which will open doors. Try to get practical experience as soon as possible -- look for internships while in high school, and definitely during your summers in college.

This profile has been adapted in part from an original interview conducted by Susan Niebur, for the "Women in Planetary Science" website. To read the full original interview, click here.

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.