Dr. Orsola De Marco,
a research fellow at the American Museum of Natural History,
says Albert Einstein is the reason she became an astrophysicist. "Many
people had telescopes when they were young, and then they became
astronomers. I had Einstein. He was my childhood love," explains
Orsola cannot remember
a time when she didn't want to become a physicist. As a four-year-old, Orsola
used to do physics experiments while riding the train in her
Italy. She would put cigarette butts on the floor at her feet
and then jump to see if the train would pull ahead while she
was in the air. But, as Galileo had shown in similar experiments
hundreds of years before, "you fall back on the same spot.
I noticed this, and I was amazed."
Born in Verona, Italy,
Orsola spent the first few years of her life in Padua, and
then moved to Bologna at age five with
her mother. Her future stepfather had a degree in physics.
He helped her with homework, gave her books about physics,
and offered encouragement and inspiration. "If it hadn't
been for him, I wouldn't have had the early support that is
needed to get into a career in physics," Orsola says.
Orsola attended Bologna
University, one of Italy's oldest and most famous universities,
where astronomy had been taught for
more than 900 years. Because of this long tradition, she
decided to focus on astronomy rather than on another branch
She soon transferred to University College London (UCL),
in England, where she studied astrophysics. Orsola loved the
the teachers, and London itself. "For three straight years,
I was walking three centimeters from the ground," she
recalls. After earning her bachelor's degree in 1994, Orsola
stayed on at UCL until she received her Ph.D. in astrophysics
At UCL, Orsola's
research focused on stars that had lost most of their hydrogen.
She used spectral analysis to
might be the cause. A spectrum is the pattern made when light
is spread out into its component parts and arranged by wavelength.
Each element has a unique spectral pattern. Astrophysicists
can learn much about a star's composition and temperature
by analyzing these patterns. "The emphasis when I was a Ph.D.
student was to get you to learn the techniques, not to make
you an internationally renowned scientist in a particular field," Orsola
says. Her research was not trendy, but it provided excellent
training and gave her skills that would prove invaluable.
Since she is never
content to stay in one place too long, after earning her Ph.D.,
Orsola took a position as a research fellow in Zurich, Switzerland.
There, she studied how radiation inside a star drives gas out
of the star, creating stellar wind.
Two years later,
she returned to UCL. She was working at an institution that
she loved, with
people she greatly admired,
in a job that was likely to become permanent. But as she
looked at her colleagues, most of whom had been at UCL their
careers, she found herself feeling restless, even claustrophobic.
Then she saw an announcement for a job at the American Museum
of Natural History.
She emailed the head
of the astrophysics department, Dr. Mike Shara, about the position.
He wrote back
saying they were really
looking for someone in a different field. Orsola shot back
another email, pushing again to be considered for the position.
Mike told her that if she was ever in New York, she should
stop by and have lunch. Orsola bought a plane ticket that
When they met, Mike
was so impressed with Orsola's enthusiasm and persistence that
he agreed to fund her for one year if
she brought another year's worth of her own funding. After
endless time, headaches, and phone calls, she managed to
come up with the money—and then she was awarded the Isaac
Asimov Research Fellowship at the Museum, providing additional
Orsola has found
that her particular skills are very useful to others at the
Museum. "In astronomy, there are
some techniques that are hard to acquire, that take a lot of
says. When other researchers ask for her help in interpreting
the spectra from a star, she is happy to help.
But Orsola sometimes
regrets that she didn't follow through on her early ambition
of being a theoretical physicist, as it is the most basic questions
in physics and astronomy that move her the most deeply. "I
look at Einstein—and of course I would never have gotten
to what he got to—but when I understand an equation or
get to understand some concept that came from his theories,
I just get tears in my eyes. It's so fundamental, it's staggering."
recent months, Orsola has begun working with Dr. Mordecai-Mark
Mac Low, another astrophysicist at the Museum, on a new line
of research that is more theoretical. During the last few years,
astronomers have detected unseen planets circling some stars. "Now
that these have been found, people are much more attentive
to the problem of unseen companions, and what they do to the
primary star as the star evolves," says Orsola. She has
been doing computer simulations to explore what might happen
when a planet enters a star's envelope, or atmosphere. Her
models show how this could explain why some stars mysteriously
lose mass. "If there are enough companions around stars
at the right distance, then this could be a major mechanism
for mass loss in stars," explains Orsola. "This could
be really important."
Apart from her research,
Orsola has other responsibilities at the Museum, including
on this online course, teaching
a course on stellar death, and advising on the Museum's weekly
Science Bulletins about astrophysics research. She would
also like to continue her work on encouraging girls with aptitude
for the physical sciences to take up those subjects at the
university level. She gives workshops in astrophysics at
annual Sonia Kovalevsky conference for young women held at
St. John's University in Queens. She has also just begun
collaborating with New York schools to bring girls interested
to the Museum, where they would spend an afternoon conducting
physics experiments in Central Park and get a behind-the-scenes
tour of the Museum's Rose Center. Orsola worked with a similar
program at UCL, and many of the girls who passed through it
ended up studying astrophysics at the university. Orsola believes
UCL's program has been successful simply because "it might
have been a very special week in the girls' lives, just because
someone told them, 'Look, if you like physics, do it.'" Today,
half the astrophysics students at UCL are female; other universities
and colleges in England have a much lower percentage.
sorts of activities take time away from Orsola's research,
but she has difficulty turning people down when they ask
for her help because she loves teaching and she wants to encourage
interest in astronomy. "Doing 50-50 museum and research
would be the perfect balance for me," she says.
loves working at the Museum, and equally, she loves living
in New York, a city that continually feeds her restless
energy and exuberant spirit. "It's impossible to be sad
here," she claims, because of the constant stimulation
from other people. She recalls the night she was returning
home at 2 A.M. after a rotten day, and she passed five men
walking in a row wearing black bodysuits and silver backpacks
with television screens on them. She was so delighted, she
burst into a chorus of "New York, New York." "And
then someone else hears me singing, and they smile. It's a
chain reaction," she says. Though living in new places
is a vital part of who she is, she believes she will always
return to New York—the first place she has ever felt
truly at home.