María Teresa Ruiz: A star in astronomy

Published on Monday, 11 February 2019

“It was because I suddenly fell in love with it. In a summer practice we were sent to the Cerro Tololo Observatory, when there were only small telescopes. I had to monitor a star with a classmate who was a fan of astronomy. I had never looked at the night sky before. There I saw the Milky Way and I fell in love with that. And I thought: “It's too fascinating, if I can, I will dedicate all my effort to this and, if I have the talent, I want to become an astronomer.”

And not only did she become an astronomer, but she was the first in Chile and the first doctor in astrophysics of Princeton in the United States. How do you remember those years studying abroad?

"There were two men and I was the only woman when I entered. I was not scared, I got along with my colleagues. The complicated thing was that they did not include me in things. I thought, “I speak bad English and maybe I'm not as good as they are.” Of course, they came from MIT, Harvard, and I only came from the ‘Universidad de Chile'. One day I realized that they were trying to solve a mathematical problem, but they were on the wrong track. I grabbed the blackboard and said, 'You have to do this and this.' I turned around and they were gone. I was not sorry, it was a relief because I realized that it was not a problem of skills, but that they did not know how to deal with women."

More equal science

The field of science has been historically considered masculine. However, Maria Teresa has always managed to stand out in her profession that has led her to achieve unprecedented achievements.

In 1997 she was awarded the National Award of Exact Sciences. Have your achievements opened doors for women in your field?

"When I got the National Award, I felt that the country was telling me 'we care about what you do'. That made me happy with having made the decision to be an astronomer. There are still more men studying science, but I think that is changing fast. Here in Chile, many of the important news of astronomical discoveries have recently come from women who do not even have their doctorates and are already making important contributions."

She was also the first president of the Chilean Academy of Sciences, an entity that currently is also chaired by a woman ...

"It was the first time they elected someone unanimously, that's unusual. Scientists always have different ideas about things, so it was impressive. Those were three interesting years where I got to know the different areas of science in Chile. I think they have realized that women do not bite and do not bark so much. The Institute of Chile, which brings together all the academies, is also chaired by a woman. Sometimes it is enough to show that women have something to contribute and that they can even make dialogue more enriching.

Highlighting the role of women

In March, within the framework of International Women's Day, the XII version of the Women's Energy Awards will be held, which Enel awards each year to outstanding women in different areas: sports, politics, business, among other categories, where we also find Sciences and Energy Efficiency, which was won by Maria Teresa in 2008.


“I remember that it was held in Parque Providencia, where the public library is located. It was very exciting, because there were women from different fields. I find it absolutely important to put emphasis on women. It is an excellent tool against discrimination against women in all areas, because it makes them visible. The problem that we women have is that we are invisible and we ourselves are guilty of that.”

Today progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go to reach true gender equality in the labor market. What are the strengths and contributions of women which still need to be recognized?

"I'll give you an example. CONICYT interviewed women and men from large research projects, where they were asked what they preferred. Women almost unanimously indicated that they prefer a good working environment. In contrast, the men said they preferred to be in charge of people, the more the better. It's a nightmare, I wish I wasn’t in charge of anyone. There are certain characteristics of men and women that I do not know if they will ever disappear. I hope that men begin to realize that it’s much nicer to work in a fun easygoing place, with people with whom you do not have to be watching your back."