Professor of Astronomy
Much like an archaeologist uses fossils to trace the development of a particular species through time, Eileen Friel pieces together the Milky Way galaxy using objects as old as the universe.
Friel, an astronomy professor at Indiana University, studies star clusters to understand how the Milky Way Galaxy formed and has evolved over time. After she graduated from the College of William and Mary with a bachelor’s degree in physics, Friel took an internship with the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. After her summer at Kitt Peak, Friel decided to pursue a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California in Santa Cruz.
When she entered the doctorate program, Friel was one of three women in the 25 person program. Today, in the professional astronomy community of established researchers and academic positions, only 15 percent are females. IU is special in this regard because of its 10 member astronomy faculty, 50 percent are females. Even as a minority in the discipline, Friel holds many feats in astronomy.
In 1995 she spent four months in Chile and started a student research program at the national observatory. In 2012 she was asked to join a large survey in Europe called the Gaia-ESO Survey (GES). The survey is in the first of its five years, and will look at fossils of clusters and stars to understand how the Milky Way Galaxy is structured. The Europeans invited Friel to join the collaboration due to her extensive knowledge on star clusters.
Outside of contributing to her field, Friel embraces the responsibility to teach students to appreciate the discipline of science.
“My long-term goal is to provide undergraduate and graduate students with some experience in how you do this work even if they choose not to continue on in the field of astronomy in the future,” Friel stated.
The skills acquired in astronomy have wide utilization in all disciplines. The information technology abilities required in astronomy are empowering aids that correlate with a wide range of professions.
“Astronomy for a long time has been a technically oriented scientific discipline. We use telescopes to collect our data, and instruments to record the data that are very sophisticated and complex. We couldn’t do any of that work without programing and information technology that allow us to work with large data sets,” Friel stated.
Due to the highly computerized aspect of the field, instruments continually change. Friel must constantly upgrade her skills to keep up with the changing technology. Another challenge Friel faces is maintaining balance in her work as a minority in the field.
“Science can be hard sometimes and using technology can be difficult. Our work is groundbreaking, thus answers are not always obvious,” Friel explained.
To maintain perspective, she believes young women moving into similar disciplines of study need to find a group of people that hold related interests and deal with comparable challenges. Friel finds support in her colleagues at IU, and demonstrates pride in their endeavors. Friel’s collaboration with her IU colleagues produces work as unique as the star clusters she observes in the nighttime sky.