By Barbara Spector
Shobita Satyapal 87,
an assistant professor in the physics and astronomy
department at George Mason University
in Fairfax, Va., aims to answer fundamental questions
about the universe. Her research focuses on unlocking
the mysteries surrounding ultraluminous galaxies,
whose infrared luminosities are several thousand
times greater than the luminosity of our galaxy.
These investigations might aid in understanding
the evolution of galaxies in general and the formation
galaxies are now being found at great distances,
meaning that they existed in the early universe,"
These galaxies, which a emit
tremendous amount of energy, are extremely faint
at visible wavelengths. Virtually nothing was
known about them until 1983, when the Infrared
Astronomical Satellite the first space-based
infrared telescope was launched, Satyapal
explains. When data from the satellite reached
Earth, researchers realized there were more galaxies
out there than they could have imagined.
"The whole sky lit up
with galaxies," Satyapal says. Yet the discovery
raised more questions. "Nobody really understood
what these objects were what their ultimate
source of energy was," she says.
Such questions could not begin
to be answered until the 1990s, with the launch
of the Infrared Space Observatory, a European
Space Agency satellite observatory that recorded
data from 1995 to 1998. Using data from the ISO
mission, "we can study the physics of these
objects by doing spectroscopy on them," Satyapal
Virtually all ultraluminous
galaxies are colliding with other such galaxies.
When galaxies collide, gravity causes large masses
to be funneled into the central region of these
galaxies. "Thats when interesting things
happen, such as the formation of black holes and
stars," Satyapal says. Questions she is investigating
include "Are there super-massive black holes
in the center of these galaxies, or is there simply
a large collection of stars? If so, are the stars
similar to those in our galaxy? How many stars
are there? How old are they?"
Besides analyzing data from
the ISO mission, Satyapal is conducting a ground-based
study of nearby infrared luminous objects (approximately
100 million light years away) to serve as a basis
of comparison in subsequent investigations of
more distant objects. Her database encompasses
observations in the near, middle, and far infrared
ranges. Her work also involves the development
of infrared spectrometers that will be used in
future NASA missions.
In 1998, Satyapal was one
of 60 young researchers to receive the third annual
Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists
and Engineers. Presented by President Bill Clinton,
the award represented the U.S. governments
highest honor for investigators at the start of
felt so fortunate very grateful, and very
excited by the work I was doing," Satyapal
Her experience at Bryn Mawr
has helped her to develop fresh approaches to
data analysis, Satyapal says. "People with
a liberal arts background can offer so much. I
feel strongly about having a broad perspective;
I feel it makes you a better scientist. Bringing
creativity and innovation to the way you look
at science is a very important skill and,
I would say, not fully cultivated in most people."
Researchers whose education
has been narrowly focused tend to gravitate toward
doing whats been done before, Satyapal believes.
"Its been spelled out to them exactly
what the next step is." But often its
beneficial to view the data with a different eye.
Being a physicist is "almost like being an
artist," she says. "Your tools are math
and science. Youre confronted with data,
but theres no path telling you what that
From 1996 to 2001, Satyapal
worked as a research associate at NASAs
Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
While there, she helped design the equipment to
be used on NASAs Next Generation Space Telescope
(NGST), which will replace the Hubble Space Telescope.
NGST, scheduled for launch in 2010, will have
an aperture of approximately 6.5 meters, whereas
Hubbles aperture is only about 2 meters,
Satyapal explains. "The bigger the telescope,
the fainter the objects that can be seen through
Satyapals work at Goddard
involved investigating the optimal instruments
for achieving the research goals of the mission
and then designing the technology. Although this
cutting-edge work was very rewarding, she says,
she wanted to work more closely with students.
It was also frustrating to work in an environment
where there were few women. "In the entire
infrared astrophysics branch, there is not a single
female scientist on the permanent staff,"
The lack of female colleagues
was nothing new to Satyapal; she had faced such
a situation in graduate school at the University
of Rochester in the early 1990s. "It was
very male-dominated," she says quite
different from the atmosphere at Bryn Mawr.
gave her the skills and determination to meet
the challenges of underrepresentation and succeed.
Her parents, who were born in India, both have
doctoral degrees in the sciences, and both her
sisters, who also attended Bryn Mawr (Sunita 85
and Shanti 88), are also pursuing scientific
careers. "We were always surrounded by scientific
discussions," Satyapal recalls. "I always
loved mathematics. Even in kindergarten, I just
Satyapal, who was born and
raised in New York City, attended the United Nations
International School and pursued a curriculum
that culminated in the International Baccalaureate,
earning credits that enabled her to finish Bryn
Mawr in three years, graduating magna cum laude.
"I liked the physics department, but I worked
by myself," she says. "I woke up at
5 in the morning and solved physics problems from
5 to 7."
After graduating from Bryn
Mawr, Satyapal took a year off before entering
graduate school. During this hiatus, she attended
art school in France and then did research at
a cancer center. "I had trouble getting so
specialized initially," she says. "I
questioned my decision to go into physics
but I didnt realize how creative it could
be. Once I started doing research, I was happy
again." In her year off, Satyapal says, "I
missed physics the mathematical rigor,
the exploration of fundamental questions, the
process that goes on in your mind when you work
on a physics problem."
Satyapal came to George Mason
in 2001. The proximity of the university to Goddard
has enabled her to collaborate with her former
colleagues. Satyapal says she decided to enter
academia because "I wanted to interact with
students doing research." She is now mentoring
five students. "You bring out the best in
people when you provide an environment that supports
them," she notes. Moreover, Satyapal now
works in a demographically unique department;
there are seven highly successful female physicists,
including the department chair, among the 17 full-time
faculty members. "This department is truly
unique," she says. "One can focus fully
on science and not feel conspicuous as the one
career has involved some personal sacrifices.
Although she has been married to medical physicist
Scott Borzillary since 1993, the couple has actually
lived together for only two years. "He was
at Columbia University for a number of years,"
Satyapal says. "We saw each other every other
weekend. We tried to find positions in the same
city, and he finally got a position at Johns Hopkins."
Satyapal says the stream of
wondrous new discoveries in infrared astronomy
has made her persistence and hard work worthwhile.
"Its an amazing and beautiful field,"
she says. "You have to go through a certain
track, but its really worth it."
About the Author
Barbara Spector writes on
science and technology as well as business topics.
She is the executive editor of Family Business
magazine and former editor of The Scientist.