María Teresa Ruiz

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Biography of María Teresa Ruiz González, Chilean astronomer specialized in the study of low-mass dwarf stars. She discovered a supernova at the time of explosion.

She also discovered two planetary nebulae and Kelu-1 (a system of two brown dwarfs located in the Hydra constellation, approximately 61 light years from Earth).

Note: in Mapuche, kelu means red.

Notable Chilean astronomer

The name of the astronomer María Teresa Ruiz, president of the Chilean Academy of Sciences, is among the 10 most powerful and influential women in Chile.

In 1973, María Teresa Ruiz was the first woman to graduate in astrophysics from the prestigious Princeton University.

María Teresa Ruiz
Dr. María Teresa Ruiz. Credit: Mirador Interactive Museum. web

The professional career of this Chilean astronomer has been extraordinary.

It seems that everything began, according to what she told in an interview, “a dark, moonless night, in which the stars looked spectacular from the mountain, on Cerro Tololo; I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was like a crush. I decided that was what I was going to do: investigate the Universe“.

María Teresa Ruiz González was born in Santiago de Chile, on September 24, 1946.

Beginning of her professional career

Upon finishing her studies at school, she decided to study Chemical Civil Engineering at the University of Chile.

At the end of the second year of university she had the opportunity to do a summer practice at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, in northern Chile.

There, one night in February 1968, under the amazing light of the Milky Way, she felt part of that immense universe that was opening before her eyes. She made the decision to study Astronomy.

Milk Way
Self-portrait of the astronomer Alan Fitzsimmons, on May 13, 2013. Credit: ESO/A

María Teresa has two sisters and several nieces and nephews, all of whom are very close and are part of the social and emotional network that has sustained her through the difficult years.

Because getting to where you have been as a female astronomer requires many intellectual qualities, but also a lot of sacrifice.

In 1971, she obtained a Bachelor of Astronomy from the University of Chile.

This was before Chile became the nation of telescopes.

María Teresa Ruiz, became the first female astronomer in her country. She is a worthy successor to Carolina Herschell who preceded her by about 200 years.

University Chile
University of Chile presided over by the statue of its most distinguished Rector: Don Andrés Bello. Credit: Wikipedia

Training as an astronomer abroad

Once this first objective was accomplished, she decided to enroll in one of the most prestigious universities in the United States to try to understand the Universe.

She continued her studies at Princeton University, where she obtained the Master’s (M.Sc), in 1973.

And two years later, the Doctorate in Astrophysics (Ph.D).

Between 1975 and 1976 she worked as an Associate Researcher at the Astronomical Observatory of Trieste, Italy, where she completed a postdoctoral degree.

Then, between 1977 and 1978, she was a visiting researcher at the Astronomy Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

In those years, the Mexican astronomer Silvia Torres collaborated as editor of the “Revista Mexicana de Astronomía y Astrofísica“.

In 1978, Maria Teresa Ruiz was admitted as a Visiting Scientist to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Spectrograph Goddard
Space Flight Center, Goddard. Preparation of a satellite with spectrograph. Credit: NASA

Astronomer María Teresa Ruiz returned to Chile

Dr. Ruiz had married Fernando Lund, a theoretical physicist and full professor at the University of Chile.

Both returned to Chile in 1979 and had a son named Camilo, born in September 1980.

Camilo Lund is an Industrial Civil Engineer and is married.

When Dr. Ruiz returned to Chile in 1979, the financial constraints were very severe and she found that scientific publications were not easily accessible as before.

There was also no money at the University to travel to other observatories or to go to international conferences.

From 1979 to 1989, she taught at the Department of Astronomy at the University of Chile, first as an associate professor.

Later, she was already appointed full professor.

María Teresa Ruiz, mother and scientist

One of the obstacles she had to overcome as an astronomer was having to balance her roles as mother and scientist, at a very critical moment, when her son Camilo was young.

She has stated that she successfully passed that difficult period, thanks to her husband, with whom she shared the domestic responsibilities and the care of the child.

Due to financial constraints, her situation as an astronomer was rather pitiful; But, in Chile, she had access to the largest telescopes in the southern hemisphere.

In these circumstances, she decided to get to work on something that no one was working on: the weakest stars that are closest to the Sun.

La Silla Observatory
La Silla Observatory, Chile, December 2007. Credit: WikimediaCommons. Masteruk

Patient work of this brilliant female astronomer

It was an area with little prestige attraction, you could not see things related to the Big Bang or anything like that.

But, despite everything, she spent ten years working on the stars remains; stars like the Sun that, when dying, become hyper-hot rocks that cool down over time.

Astronomy is one of the sciences that needs the contribution of women in a special way.

They are more detailed than men. They are more patient and can observe things that men overlook.

Dr. Ruiz had a great example in the extraordinary life of Williamina Fleming.

Maria Teresa found a lot of these dead stars. Because she was Chilean, she was able to have a lot of observation time with telescopes.

No one would have been given as much time as she was, because Chile had privileges over other countries. She spent hundreds of nights searching for these stars.

In 1996, María Teresa Ruiz earned one of the ten “Presidential Chairs” awarded by the Government of Chile, to directly support the work of Chilean or foreign researchers, who had maintained a significant scientific production, in number and quality.

The Contest is resolved by the Presidential Commission on Scientific Matters, pursuant to the verdict of an International Jury.

The Presidential Chairs in Sciences consist of an annual contribution of about 50 million Chilean pesos, with a duration of 2 years, renewable for one more year.

The great discovery of this Chilean astronomer

María Teresa Ruiz continued working until, finally, on March 15, 1997, she was able to make a very important contribution to Astronomy.

Her gaze met an object she was not looking for.

At first she did not know what this object was. It didn’t look like a star; Could it be a giant planet, a super Jupiter or a brown dwarf star ???

This is how Maria Teresa remembered those magical moments: “There were two stars that were already known. What I am most proud and grateful for is that I was not looking for her, she contacted me. Was a present. It took me half an hour or an hour to recognize her. What is this? I thought. So red: which means it is very cold. So weak: which means it is very close. I lived a very exciting moment. I was alone with the telescope operator, and I think he was surprised when I started jumping“.

Ultimately, it turned out to be a system of two brown dwarfs located in the southern Hydra constellation, approximately 61 light-years from Earth.

This object discovered by Dr. María Teresa Ruiz has been called the Kelu-1 brown dwarf object.

In the ESO international press release of 28 April 1997, it was assumed that this object is located at a distance of only 10 parsec from the Sun.

Furthermore, it is unique and is therefore not disturbed by any other objects in its vicinity.

La Silla
To the right of the image, the 3.6-meter telescope is visible. Credit: José Francisco Salgado.

The image obtained by María Teresa on March 15, 1997, was made through an infrared filter, with the 3.6-meter telescope, at the La Silla Observatory.

The exposure lasted 40 seconds and was performed during good sky conditions.

The first verified brown dwarf was Teide 1, in 1995, at the Teide Observatory, in the Canary Islands.

The mass of this dwarf star is equivalent to 25 times that of Jupiter. Canarian researchers referred to it as a “superplane“.

But Dr. Ruiz’s discovery was absolutely unique, being a system of 2 brown dwarfs.

This magnificent triumph encouraged her to embark on a new line of research on brown dwarfs.

Well, these objects, not being overwhelmed by the brightness of a parent star, are much easier to study than planets.

Official recognition of this remarkable woman

In 1997, the Ministry of Education of the Government of Chile awarded Doctor María Teresa Ruiz the 1997 National Exact Sciences Award.

She was the first woman distinguished with this Award.

María Teresa Ruiz
María Teresa Ruiz received the National Science Prize in Chile. Credit: CONICYT Communications

To award the National Exact Sciences award to María Teresa Ruiz, the jury based itself on the international impact of her work in the field of Astronomy.

In particular for her studies of low-mass dwarf stars, the discovery of a supernova in the act of exploding, the discovery of two planetary nebulae in the halo of our galaxy and, especially, for the very recent discovery of a brown dwarf (or super-planet) in the vicinity of the solar system.

To this was added the recognition of the jury to the important contribution of the physician in the training of disciples and in the organization of the national scientific community in its discipline.

Also in 1997, María Teresa Ruiz received the Rectoral Medal from the University of Chile.

The “Rectoral Medal” distinction is awarded to members of the university community who have carried out actions and services in favor of the University, who have shown a special capacity and dedication or who have excelled in increasing the prestige of the University at the national level or international.

Later works of María Teresa Ruiz

Starting in 1997, Dr. Ruiz began to work more on extrasolar planets.

Brown dwarfs can reveal the secrets of exoplanets.

They hold promise for explaining planetary evolution and also for understanding the process of star formation.

On one occasion, a journalist asked her about the difficulties she had as a woman when she studied at university.

Her first adverse memory in a man’s world is rather of a practical order: the bathroom.

She said that “in the entire School of Engineering there was only a women’s bathroom and it was disgusting. It had a window that overlooked the casino and whoever looked out could see inside. I survived those years by making friends with the school secretaries and officials, they lent me their bath”.

The journalist then insisted, asking about the teachers.

The answer was “There was one I was panicking about. I would sit down first, to see the blackboard. He always said ‘I need a volunteer’ and I had to get ahead… I suffered. I don’t know if it was harassment, but it was awkward. What did happen was that the few women we were, we had to demonstrate, to colleagues and teachers, that we were there by vocation and not looking for a husband ”.

Asked about the inequality of wages between men and women, her answer was: “In general, and I am speaking from my small world, which is the University of Chile, I have not felt any differences. Here there are degrees for salaries and each one has his degree, regardless of whether he is a man or a woman. Sometime, more than 20 years ago, they called me from the Faculty because they had to lower my salary. They told me that by an algorithm, a new calculation, my salary was reduced by about 60 thousand pesos. It gave me more pain than anger; It was not something that affected my financial situation, but it seemed inappropriate. That algorithm was not applied to colleagues like José Maza, and we were from the same generation and had the same job. My revenge has been to tell it ”.

Since 1998, María Teresa Ruiz has been a Full Member of the Chilean Academy of Sciences.

The Chilean Academy of Sciences was created in 1964 and brings together the Academies of Medicine, Fine Arts and Social, Political and Moral Sciences.

María Teresa Ruiz was a beneficiary with a Guggenheim Scholarship, in 2000. The Foundation was in 1925, by businessman Simon Guggenheim and his wife.

The scholarship is approximately $ 35,000 and those who are elected and subsidized can spend their money freely, since the purpose is to grant them blocks of time in which they can work with such creative freedom and sufficiently free from their regular duties.

Also in 2000, María Teresa Ruiz received the Amanda Labarca Award of Merit.

This distinction was instituted in 1976 and is intended to enhance the personality and work of university women who have stood out with exceptional reliefs in the field of their profession, in the domain of culture or in the service of the country.

Dr. Ruiz heads the Foundation for the Development of Astronomy in Chile and the Center for Astrophysics and Related Technologies (CATA).

On December 27, 2015, she was elected to preside over the Chilean Academy of Sciences.

On October 4, 2016, it was announced that she had been awarded the 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO Prize for Women in Science, a recognition she received in March of that year at a ceremony in Paris, France.

The jury based their decision on their discovery of the first brown dwarf and their seminal work on understanding dim stars, including stars in the final stages of their evolution.

Throughout her 50-year career, she has published more than two hundred scientific articles.

She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Tiempos Nuevos Foundation, which runs the Mirador Interactive Museum (MIM).

Her astronomical outreach publications

Her book “Children of the Stars” is written in a simple and enjoyable style.

The objective of this work is to reveal the secrets of the Universe. It makes a tour about the origins of the Universe and of the human.

Explain the story of the violent explosions that made true this maxim that “we are stardust”.

Maria Teresa Ruiz
María Teresa Ruiz is the author of the magnificent book “Hijos de las estrellas”. Credit: Javier Sampedro. web

In 2013, she published the book “From Chile a starry sky: readings to become fascinated with astronomy”.

In conversation with Laura Pitt of the BBC Mundo channel, on September 9, 2017, María Teresa Ruiz talks about her fascination with astronomy.

The interview took place during a meeting of writers and thinkers that took place in Querétaro, Mexico City.

In the 20th century, there have been numerous Chilean women who began to be news in the world.

Among them: Violeta Parra, folk singer of international fame. Marcela Contreras, notable doctor. Adriana Valdés, essayist and director of the Chilean Academic of the language.

All of them, preceded by the admirable poet Gabriela Mistral.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

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