Catherine Pilachowski

Astronomer has seen major achievements for space research, women in science

Growing up during the Space Race, Catherine Pilachowski remembers being swept up in the excitement of the spaceflight competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

She didn't care that space exploration was a male-dominated field, or that her male classmates sometimes received more credit than her from teachers. At her mother's encouragement, a teenage Pilachowski began reading books about science and became deeply interested in astronomy -- particularly the evolution of stars.

"I knew then that I wanted to be an astronomer," she said. "I was fascinated by the idea that I could use the light emitted by stars to study how they change over time."

Pilachowski, now a professor and Kirkwood Chair in astronomy at Indiana University Bloomington, has brought that passion and more to her work at IU, where she researches the history of the Milky Way galaxy by studying the chemical composition of globular star clusters.

For a long time, Pilachowski said, these massive star clusters were thought to be composed of stars from a single burst of star formation, held together by gravity, moving like a swarm of bees. But in recent years, astronomers have discovered globular clusters are complex, with multiple bursts of star formation and a range of star ages, chemical properties and movement patterns.

While at IU, Pilachowski and her former graduate students Maria Cordero and Christian Johnson found that stars with unusual chemical compositions concentrate in the centers of clusters, telling evidence of the clusters' complex formation processes.

And because of the speed at which light travels, when Pilachowski points her telescope toward stars in far-away galaxies, she's essentially looking back in time.

"We're seeing galaxies in process of formation, 10 or more billion years ago," she said. "Stars change very slowly, but the universe of 13 billion years ago was very different from today."