Meg Urry, Physics & Astronomy

Meg Urry, Israel Munson Professor of Physics, conducts research on supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies, otherwise known as Active Galactic Nuclei, and how they have developed with their galaxies through time. Recently she has been working with her research group on “a cosmic census of black hole growth” in order to describe the trajectory of black hole growth quantitatively. By looking at the radiation that black holes emit as they swallow up matter, researchers like Urry can determine the mass that was taken in, and by looking at this process over time they can determine the growth of a black hole.

Urry was one of two women in her graduate school cohort, and the only one to complete the program. At the time, she did not interpret this lack of representation as a systemic issue: “I didn’t think there was any problem… I didn’t think [that] they [were] discriminating against women. I thought, naïvely, `women [don’t] want to do this.`” It was not until her time working as a researcher, after earning her PhD in 1984, that Urry began to understand the extent of gender inequity in physics. During this time, she experienced an environment where women were consistently paid less than men and were given fewer awards and opportunities, despite bringing in more grant funding and publishing at higher rates than their male colleagues. In response, she started working to promote gender equality in the sciences, organizing the first conference on Women in Astronomy (1992), chairing the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (2000-2003), and leading the US delegation to the first international meeting on Women in Physics (2002). For her efforts, Urry was elected a Fellow of the Association of Women in Science (2006) and awarded the 2010 Women in Space Science Award from the Adler Planetarium and the 2012 George van Biesbroeck prize from the American Astronomical Society.

Urry suggests that university-wide initiatives and other forms of affirmative action are crucial to achieving gender and racial equity in academia: “We pretend that our systems are accurate meritocracies, that we have hired and promoted the best people. And I just don’t believe that’s true… if we’re truly a meritocracy, we shouldn’t be a race and gender filter, but we are.” She cites a “built-in inertia” as a contributor to the sluggish increase in diversity at universities, caused by the low turnover rates in academic positions. Because new faculty positions are few and far between, universities have a greater need to be proactive in fostering diverse hiring practices. When Urry arrived at Yale in 2001, she was the first woman to be granted tenure in the Physics department. Today, most of the seven women faculty members, including Urry herself, and two African American faculty in the department of thirty-four were hired through faculty diversity initiatives promoted by Yale.

Selected works of Meg Urry:

  • Urry, M. and Bailyn, C. “Seeing Black Holes,” Video lecture. Yale News, 7 Oct. 2011. URL:
  • Urry, C. M., & Padovani, P. (1995). Unified schemes for radio-loud active galactic nuclei. Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 107(715), 803.
  • T. T. Ananna, E. Treister, C. M. Urry, C. Ricci, Allison Kirkpatrick, Stephanie LaMassa, Johannes Buchner, Francesca Civano, Michael Tremmel, Stefano Marchesi (2019). The Accretion History of AGN I: Supermassive Black Hole Population Synthesis Model. The Astrophysical Journal, 871(2), 240
  • Urry, M. (2015). Science and gender: scientists must work harder on equality. Nature News, 528(7583), 471.
  • Urry, M. (2005). Diminished by Discrimination We Scarcely See. Washington Post, Feb 6, 2005,

Profile by Sarah Babinski, PhD candidate in Linguistics