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Profile: Orsola DeMarco

Introduction to Dr. Orsola DeMarco

Dr. Orsola De Marco ©AMNH

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.

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 native 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 of physics. She soon transferred to University College London (UCL), in England, where she studied astrophysics. Orsola loved the school, 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 in 1997.

At UCL, Orsola's research focused on stars that had lost most of their hydrogen. She used spectral analysis to explore what 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 entire 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 very day.

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 funding.

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 training," she 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."

In 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 working 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 the 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 in science 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.

These 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.

Orsola 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.

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