Women's History Month Profile: Jane Luu

March 31, 2009

Well, Jane Luu for one. She's a Vietnamese American astronomer who, as a graduate student, co-discovered the Kuiper Belt, a belt of ices and dwarf planets on the outer edge of the Solar System.

Scratch an achiever, and usually you'll find a person interesting beyond their achievements. Born in 1963, Luu emigrated to the States from Vietnam at the age of 12. Her father was an interpreter for the American forces in the war and had to flee after the fall of Saigon. The family only spent a month or two in refugee camp; her aunt had married an American GI and the couple agreed to sponsor the family where they were living in Kentucky.

Luu's father also spoke French -- a holdover from colonialism -- and taught his children French as well. So when Luu arrived in the States, she had little trouble learning English. She has also said (and I think this illuminates a lot about model minorityism) that the French-based school system she started in in Vietnam was much harder than the American system, being based on rote learning and giving out much more homework. The American system emphasizes basic understanding over rote learning, and doesn't give as much work. So she found it very easy. (Of course, being really, really smart probably helped, too.)

She studied abroad in Berlin as an undergraduate (she received her BA from Stanford in 1984) and did graduate work at Berkeley and MIT. It was here that she worked with David Jewitt for five years to discover the Kuiper Belt. (You can see a video of Jewitt below talking about their process.) After receiving her doctorate, she worked at Harvard and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. She currently works on instrumentation at the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT.

In this wonderful interview Luu says that she wasn't any more interested in looking at the stars than any other children she knew. It was an early experience seeing the actual work of astronomy that got her interested.

As a
child, I'd just look up and see the pretty stars but
nothing more than that.  I didn't have a telescope
or anything.  I stumbled upon astronomy by accident. 
I visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and saw the
pictures from Voyager!  That was the first time I
realized, "Wow, there are people who go and study
these things and do this for a living."

She's currently working in instrumentation rather than astronomical observation because she doesn't want to deal with the academic rounds. That bad, huh? Her advice to children:

It was
my collaborator, Dave Jewitt, who pointed out to me,
"You know people like to use the word 'brilliant'. 
People like to hero worship and say 'oh, this astronomer
is brilliant.'" Dave said, "Nah, he's just
interested in what he does.  That's all there is." 
If you're interested in something, you care about it,
think a lot about it, and then you're going to have good
ideas.  If you have some perseverance and you stick
to your ideas, you can make something of them.  If
you're interested in something you're already halfway

Luu has also taught as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Nepal and Tibet. By chance.

I didn't have any
money but I met this lady who just landed a job with the
U.S. Agency for
International Development (USAID)
and she was
going up to Nepal to do some work and she said, "Oh
if you find yourself in the neighborhood, stop by. 
You could stay with me."  I said, "OK!"
and I tried to find the money to go.  I thought,
"Well, it doesn't cost much to live there -- just
come up with the airfare and then off you go." 
Once I got there I looked for volunteer jobs and found
Save the
. ... I was
out in the village teaching for about a month and then
the opportunity came up that Tibet opened the border
between Nepal and Tibet.  You just have to go
because it doesn't happen very often.  The Peace
Corps volunteers are great people.  You hear about
them and they say, "Oh, we're going to..." 
So you say, "Well, can I come along?"  And
they say, "Sure!"  I wasn't actually in
the Peace Corps.  I just joined them when they went. 
I ended up spending the whole summer in Nepal and Tibet.

I've done that, said "Okay, let's go!" But to the beach or something, not to Tibet! I think the hard work and finding your interests thing she mentions above is one element of a successful life. But another is a combination of spontaneity and good judgment. For a lot of people, spontaneity is just poor impulse control. But for Luu it seems to be the ability to recognize and say yes to great opportunities on the spur of the moment. Lord knows I've had some amazing opps that I've turned down because I didn't recognize them at the time ... or because I simply didn't have the presence of mind, or the courage, to say yes. I wonder if this is an immutable characteristic, or if it can be learned. I hope it can be learned, and I'm going to take inspiration from Luu and try to learn it.

Here are her professional stats.