Heidi Hammel
Senior Research Scientist, Space Science Institute

Becoming an Astronomer

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Heidi Hammel rose to the challenge of a difficult college course.

Heidi Hammel

Heidi B. Hammel joined The Planetary Society's Board of Directors in 2005.  A Senior Research Scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Hammel herself lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

She received her undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982 and her Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from the University of Hawaii in 1988.  After a post-doctoral position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, California), Hammel returned to MIT, where she spent nearly nine years as a Principal Research Scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

Hammel primarily studies outer planets and their satellites, with a focus on observational techniques.  Hammel received the  2002 American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences (AAS/DPS) Sagan Medal for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public .


Topic: Becoming an Astronomer

Heidi Hammel: My entry into astronomy was purely by chance.  I never set out to be an astronomer, or even a scientist, but when I was in college I had an elective course to take, and astronomy was one of the electives, and it looked like fun.  So I said, “Okay, I’ll take that course.”  And I remember when I walked into the class, there were only three other people in the room.  Two of them were male graduate students, and one of them was a senior, and me, a sophomore girl.  And I remember going in to the professor and saying, “I don’t think that I belong in this class.”  He said, “No, no.  This is for you.  I want this class to be for sophomores, you know.  Stay in the class.”  And a few weeks went by, and I was really struggling in college, and it was clear to me I had to drop a course.  And I was either going to drop my astronomy course or drop my history course.  I went in to the professor and I said, “I really.  I think I need to drop your class because I need to drop one class, and I don’t have any data yet for my project”, and blah blah blah.”  He said, “Look.  Let’s go out to our observatory tonight.”  We had a little observatory. “And see if you can get some data, and if you do, then you could write your project.  It’ll be fine.”  And he said, in retrospect, thank goodness it was clear that night because I did get my data, and I stayed in the astronomy course and dropped my history course, and, you know, there was no going back from there.  I discovered that what I like to do is use equipment and the bigger the better.  I love to be looking into space and being the first person to see something.  It’s like being an explorer, but not having to leave the surface of the earth or travel across an ocean.  And yet you know some of the things that you see, you’re the only person in the world who’s ever seen that.  It’s a really exciting feeling to be an explorer and to be able to bring that information back and share with people.  I just love that thrill, that excitement, to be right on the edge of something.