Years of rigorous study — and pure curiosity — helped University of Chicago Lab Schools alum Andrea Ghez win the Nobel Prize in physics. But it was her high school science teacher who helped prove the theory women belong in the field.
Ghez said it was “a combination of very disorienting and surreal and off the charts amazing” to get a 2 a.m. wake-up call from the Nobel Prize committee.
“I was just thrilled, surprised, over the moon,” she said.
In fact, it was the early moon landings that first inspired the UCLA professor to study astrophysics.
“That was the first time I remember really thinking about just the scale and the enormity of the universe,” Ghez said.
Judy Keane taught thousands of students during her 40-year career in the science department at the University of Chicago Lab Schools. Ghez, a 1983 graduate, stood out.
“She is enthusiastic. She is exuberant,” Keane said. “She has a sense of wonder about her that even at a young age was apparent.”
“I realized how lucky I was to have a female science teacher because for a long time, she was the only female science teacher I had,” Ghez said. “At some point I decided I wanted to go to MIT and being told they don’t admit girls. And I remember going to talk to Miss Keane and being so upset. And she had a great response. She said, ‘Well if you want to apply, apply. What’s the worst thing they can say, no?’”
MIT’s answer was “yes.”
A PhD from Cal Tech followed then UCLA, where she’s been a professor of astrophysics for 25 years.
It has been a career trajectory that brought her to 14,000 feet at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, where she harnessed the power of the world’s largest telescope to explore the possible existence of a giant black hole in the center of the galaxy.
Ghez persisted and captured her first image in 1995 and another in 1996.
“(The key) is actually showing the motion of stars, looking at how stars move as a way of revealing the presence of a black hole,” she said. “A black hole has strong gravity. Stars should orbit the black hole for the same reason planets orbit the sun.”
But there were skeptics in the scientific community.
“Taking the lesson from Miss Keane, you just keep going,” Ghez said.
Ghez went on to develop enhanced optics that allowed her to better visualize the stars’ patterns as they orbited at high speeds while seemingly kept in line by a powerful gravitational force — evidence of a super-massive black hole 4 million times the mass of the sun.
“Today, compared to where we were in the beginning, we’ve increased the evidence for super massive black holes by a factor of ten million,” she said. “That’s not an incremental change that’s a transformational change.”
The mother of two boys and one of only four women to win the Nobel Prize in physics, Marie Curie among them, Ghez said her mission will always be to inspire future scientists, just like Keane did for her at the Lab Schools.
“I’ve always felt quite passionately about encouraging young girls into the sciences,” Ghez said. “And I think just being a role model and being visible is such an important way that we can encourage the next generation to go forward. So having more of a platform to do that is super exciting to me.”
“There’s a lot of hard work in there and you can’t kid yourself about that,” Keane said. “But if you want to apply yourself and do some interesting stuff, this is an area to consider.”
There’s much more work to be done. Ghez said she now wants to probe gravity and the environment surrounding the super massive black hole.