Monday, May 20, 2024

Mexican astronomer named honorary member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Mexican scientist and astronomer Julieta Fierro Gossman has been named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – a distinction she now shares with the likes of Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. 

Fierro received the news while checking her email over a cup of coffee. “I thought it was fake news… but then I realized it was true!” she said in a video posted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where she has worked as a researcher for the past 53 years. After confirming the news was true, Fierro said she felt very grateful for the opportunity. However, she still doesn’t know how she became a candidate.  

Julieta Fierro’s tenure at UNAM began when she was an undergraduate student studying physics. Soon after, she found her home at the Insitute of Astronomy, where she has researched the chemical composition of interstellar matter. (UNAM)

Fierro started her academic career as a teacher’s assistant in ​​mathematics and the physics laboratory while studying for her bachelor’s degree. She has worked as a researcher at the Institute of Astronomy of the UNAM ever since.

Fierro currently holds the title of principal investigator at the institute, and is a professor in the Faculty of Sciences. She is also Chair XXV of the Mexican Academy of Language and is a member of the National System of Researchers (SNI) at the highest level. 

“This is a recognition that honors the highest house of studies and the Coordination of Scientific Research,” Fierro said of UNAM. UNAM means a lot to Fierro as it has “greatly contributed to her education…and given her freedom.”

In an interview with the university, the scientist explained that she loves science because it is how we can understand nature: “Humans are overwhelmed with questions that become challenges [to answer]. Finding the answers brings happiness,” she said.

The Institute of Astronomy at UNAM, whose origins date back to 1867, when the National Astronomical Observatory was founded on the roof of the National Palace in Mexico City. (UNAM)

Fierro added that she is fascinated by astronomy because she considers celestial objects “dazzling, as if they were a beautiful song in another language that one does not understand.” “Astronomy,” she mentioned, “can be approached from so many disciplines, such as Mesoamerican culture, biology, chemistry and physics,” among others.  

“Mathematics is nature’s most pleasing tool and language,” she said.

Julieta Fierro’s new accolade will be made official at a ceremony in late September, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With this, she will join fourteen Mexicans who are also members of this academy, such as archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, biologist José Sarukhán Kermez and the late physicist Marcos Moshinsky Borodiansky, born in Mexico to Ukrainian parents. 

Fierro has received several national and international awards that include UNESCO’s Kalinga prize, the Klumpke-Roberts Award, the Primo Rovis medals, recognition from the Congress of Mexico City, and the Benito Juárez and Omecíhuatl medals. Several laboratories, astronomical societies and three schools currently bear her name.

Julieta Fierro poses in front of a mural made in her honor in Iztapalapa, Mexico City. One of her greatest contributions is making the subjects of science and space accessible for others to enjoy. (Daniel Augusto/Cuartoscuro)

“This joy is for everyone: it is for Mexico, for UNAM and for all women, since we never imagined we would be able to achieve so many things,” she finally said. 

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780 with the goal of honoring leaders in all fields of human endeavor, to examine new ideas and address issues of the nation and the world.

Other big names on the list this year include U.S. songwriter and playwright Lin Manuel Miranda, British writer Zadie Smith, and Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh.

With reports from UNAM, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Instituto de Astronomía de la UNAM.

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