New Zealand's ultimate female scientist remembered for breaking glass ceiling

Tinsley's scientific contributions were so monumental the New Zealand Geographic Board named a mountain in Fiordland ...
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Tinsley's scientific contributions were so monumental the New Zealand Geographic Board named a mountain in Fiordland after her.

Kiwi theoretical astrophysicist, Yale professor and mother-of-two, the late Beatrice Tinsley broke the glass ceiling for women in science.

Throughout her spectacular career she battled hard for a foothold in a largely male-dominated profession and ended up hailed as one of New Zealand's leading scientists.

She published just shy of 100 scientific papers during her career, including a PhD thesis on the evolution of galaxies, before her early death of melanoma at 40.

Tinsley's work as a cosmologist looked at black holes and the evolution of galaxies.
NASA

Tinsley's work as a cosmologist looked at black holes and the evolution of galaxies.

Now she's being remembered in a piece by Josephine Reid in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand - drawing on two biographies of her life; Bright Star and My Daughter Beatrice. 

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The article outlines her brilliant intellect, generous spirit and teaching ability, while wading through issues of sexism Reid said the scientific community still faces today.

Born in 1941, Tinsley's ambition and strong-mindedness began to flourish early in life, when she insisted on taking additional mathematics classes at scholarship level at New Plymouth Girls' High School, with school records stating that "no girl within memory had tried to do this".

She graduated with a Masters in science from Canterbury University College, where she was "the only woman in physics at Masters level".

Tinsley was born in 1941 and died of cancer in 1981.
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Tinsley was born in 1941 and died of cancer in 1981.

At 20, she married fellow student Brian Tinsley and tried soon after to get a job with the university but couldn't as her husband was already a faculty member.

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The article said these anti-nepotism rules followed her throughout her career - even after she moved to America with her husband where she was again denied employment, this time by the University of Dallas.

So she enrolled for a PhD at the University of Texas were she wrote her thesis on the evolution of galaxies in less than three years, during which time the couple adopted their first child. 

Her thesis was considered revolutionary to the scientific community with the groundbreaking discovery the universe was not in a fixed state, but infinitely expanding.

Tinsley excelled because of her ability to comprehend observational results that others had not recognised, Reid wrote.

Other scientists said her work "paved the way for the modern subject of galactic evolution theory".

Several years later, the pair adopted another child, and with an unsatisfying work life balance, Reid said Tinsley made arguably the most dramatic choice of her life in 1974 - leaving her family.

While still committed to her responsibilities as a mother, she began a job at Yale University in the small but strong astronomy department, a move that ultimately led to her full professorship.

It was here that she finally satisfied her fight against sexism in science - obtaining the security and academic freedom she had sought after for so long, the article said.

She was the youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious American Astronomical Society's Annie J. Cannon Prize for women in 1974.

Her passion for teaching and cosmology reportedly saw her go above and beyond for her students, a trend she continued to do right into the final days of her illness.

Tinsley died of the aggressive form of melanoma in 1981 at the age of 40, and her ashes were buried on campus cemetery.

Tinsley's scientific contributions were so monumental the New Zealand Geographic Board named a mountain in Fiordland after her. 

 - Stuff

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