Chryssa Kouveliotou: Astrophysicist
As a child growing up in Greece, I spent many summer nights with my friends on the beach, lying on blankets looking up at the stars. Now and then we'd see a falling star, and we'd play "find a satellite" games. The stars are so far away yet so much a part of us. I always wanted to know more about them.
I was still in Greece when I watched Neil Armstrong take his famous first step on the moon. I was fascinated! I decided then and there that I wanted to be an astronaut, but guess what? There were no Greek astronauts. So I chose another path -- astronomy.
Ironically, when I finished college in Greece and asked my astronomy professor how and where to pursue a career in astrophysics, he answered, "I strongly advise against that choice. There's no future in it." To this day I don't know whether he said that because I'm a woman or because he really thought it was a poor choice. No matter -- I disregarded him completely and set off to find my way on my own.
Luckily, my parents were open-minded in their thinking and attitudes. I told my father I wanted to leave Greece to go to graduate school, and he answered, "I'd rather have you settled and with a family close to us, but I'm not going to stop you." Remember, I was 21 years old and about to leave not only my home, but my country.
And I did. I earned a Master's degree in England, and then a PhD in Germany. Then I taught Physics and Astronomy at the University of Athens back in Greece for several years, but knew all the while I really wanted to do research. So I spent every vacation, plus my one-year sabbatical, in the United States doing research at NASA.
My first love was always gamma-ray bursts -- tremendous explosions that rock the universe like nothing else. They happen when supermassive stars use up all their fuel and collapse. I did my PhD thesis on them in 1981. I was probably the first person ever to earn a PhD with a thesis on these explosions!
When I was at Goddard for my first sabbatical, I had a job working on solar flares. But I moonlighted during evenings, nights, and weekends researching gamma-ray bursts. A colleague who knew that I was spending my "spare" time studying these bursts emailed me and asked me to look in my database to help confirm his observation that a series of the bursts came from the same part of the sky. I jumped at the chance!
Every night, after my daytime research, I carried armloads of tapes – as many as I could carry – down to the basement of the building I worked in. I stayed until midnight every night analyzing tapes, looking for these repeating gamma-ray bursts. Some people said I was wasting my time, but I hit the jackpot! I found them, and in the process became part of the discovery team for a brand new phenomenon called a soft gamma repeater.
When Jerry Fishman contacted me in 1985 and asked me to work for Marshall, it was a turning point in my life. Jerry's group had designed and built an instrument called BATSE to look for gamma-ray bursts. When the instrument was turned on, data started coming in and we discovered something new every day. Those were exciting times!
After all these years, although my research has expanded in many areas, I'm still working on gamma-ray bursts. They still intrigue me just like those falling stars did when I was a child. I've always loved to look at the universe, at how nature expresses itself. I live for the unexpected joy of finding new things, solving mysteries, and understanding the world. And each time I learn something new, I realize how little I know!
But I do know this. No matter what obstacles are placed in your way, follow your dreams and they will take you to the stars.