SKY’S THE LIMIT

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Kit Noble

Dr. Regina Jorgenson carries on the tradition of Maria Mitchell as the new Director of Astronomy.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 2.12.55 PMFor as long as she can remember, Dr. Regina Jorgenson wanted to be an astronaut. Her father was an engineer, and one of her earliest memories was of him coming into her elementary school with a solar telescope he made so that she and her fellow students could observe a solar eclipse. Fast-forward to 1997, and Jorgenson found herself on Nantucket as an intern at Maria Mitchell, working under Dr. Vladimir Strelnitski in his first year as the director of astronomy. “Vladimir was a fantastic mentor,” Dr. Jorgenson says, now literally sitting in his seat as the director of astronomy. “It was under him that I had my first serious research experience.” After that, there was no doubt in her mind that astronomy was her calling.

But Jorgenson’s journey back to Maria Mitchell after her internship was hardly a straight shot. After graduating from the University of Puget Sound, she was awarded a Watson Fellowship, propelling her around the world to explore why there are so few women in astronomy. The conclusions she gleaned in India, Australia, Japan, Russia and throughout Europe over four years were wide-reaching.

When she returned to the States, Jorgenson continued her education, receiving her masters and doctorate at U.C. San Diego. It’s fitting that now, as she takes her place as the director of astronomy on Nantucket, Dr. Jorgenson continues the legacy of perhaps the most famous female astronomer.

“Maria Mitchell is still a huge inspiration,” she says. “The most inspiring for me is her philosophy of learning by doing. That’s something we still try to do here.” Much like when she was an intern, students who come to study at Maria Mitchell get thrown right into hands-on research. This year, Jorgenson and her team are embarking upon a number of interesting studies, including the gas flows out of the Milky Way, a variable star project and analyzing galaxy formation and evolution. “What I find motivating from day to day in astronomy is that I get to work on these super-awesome fundamental questions,” she says. “The really exciting thing for me is the process of asking those questions and the process of discovery.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 2.12.45 PMJorgenson is open to fielding the questions that most people often find themselves pondering when staring up at the sky. What came before the Big Bang? What are the chances we’ll get hit by a city-sized asteroid? And, of course, are there other forms of life out there in the cosmos? “The chances of there being some sort of simple life are probably quite high, even in our own solar system,” she says. “There are
several moons around Jupiter and Saturn that we think have liquid water underneath a crust of ice. Liquid water is key for life as we know it.” Jorgenson thinks that there might also be liquid water on Mars, a planet people like Elon Musk propose we visit and eventually colonize. “In fact, there’s a lot of people who believe that life started on Mars and came to Earth via a meteor.” As for whether she would be game to visit Mars, there’s no question: “I would totally go.”

In the meantime, there are few better places on Earth for her to address these astronomical questions than on Nantucket. Maria Mitchell provides easy access to sophisticated telescopes as well as a robust plate collection that has documented the night sky for the last hundred years. All of those plates have now been digitized and can be observed online. Most valuable, however, is just being on Nantucket. “When it’s dark here, it’s very dark,” Dr. Jorgenson says. “The [dark] sky is actually a very precious natural resource that Nantucket has — one that we need to protect — because it’s not true in lots of places.” So it is that Jorgenson sees not only light in the dark, but she also plans a brighter future for Maria Mitchell.

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