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Honorary graduate Wendy Freedman

A triple alumna of the University of Toronto, Wendy Laurel Freedman received her PhD in astronomy and astrophysics from U of T in 1984 and went on to chart the stars and nearby galaxies in the universe.

Today, the preeminent astronomer and scholar best known for her work on the Hubble constant receives another degree from her alma mater. In recognition of her pioneering contributions to the field of astronomy, U of T confers the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa upon Freedman at the Convocation ceremony June 14. (Watch the ceremony online.)

The Crawford H. Greenewalt Chair and director of the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California, Freedman spoke with writer Gavin Au-Yeung about facing and overcoming the challenges in her life. 

What advice can you offer graduating students?
Follow your passion and don’t be guided by the pessimists around you.

When you’re guided by pessimistic ideas -- for example: “maybe women can’t do science,” -- then you’ll be discouraged. My grade 10 physics teacher would say, “the girls don’t have to listen,” when he explained something technical. So, I chose to ignore that because I found the subject fascinating, and because I didn’t want to be written off like that. It’s important to realize that some people will just be pessimistic or discouraging and it’s also important not to let those things get in the way of pursuing what you want to do.      

What is your proudest achievement?
The potential to learn new things in the field of astronomy has rapidly accelerated. I came into the field at a time when it was first possible to measure the distances to objects observed above the earth’s atmosphere using the Hubble Space Telescope. And so I led a project to measure the size and the age of the universe. In the past, we didn’t have the means to make these measurements accurately enough to better than a factor of two. 

Using Hubble we were able to demonstrate that  the universe is 13.7 billion years old (and make those measurements to an accuracy of 10 per cent). It was an incredible opportunity to be able to lead this work over a decade.  

And the key to your success?
I believe that my greatest key to success is having a passion for what I do. Generally speaking, I had many jobs in high school and college where I would look at the clock all day (laughs) – and it was excruciating. The opportunity to find something that I love to do has been a gift, and it makes an enormous difference if one is really enjoying what they’re doing. If there’s a spark and a passion for what you do, then that leads to a greater likelihood that you’ll be successful in whatever you do.

What is the true value of a university degree?
I think that the true value of a university degree is the sharing of collective experience and intellectual achievements of humankind.

Centuries of human thought has allowed us to get to the point where we have this vast body of literature, of philosophy, an ever-broadening understanding of the human body, disease, the universe. Whatever subject you pick, there is an incredible store of accumulative knowledge. Universities provide the opportunity to be exposed to things that are enormously important and to engage in this ongoing discussion of humanity – it channels your own thinking and prepares you to be the leaders of the next generation.

What went through your mind when you heard about the honorary degree?
It was completely unexpected, but a great pleasure to be honored by your own alma mater in this way. It is even more special since my parents are living in Toronto and can share in this honor with me.

What do you wish more people knew about U of T?
It is a first-rate university, competitive with the best universities in the world. It is a world of opportunities. I loved my time at U of T, and I think it’s an extraordinary place to get an education.

Biography

Born in Toronto, Freedman's father, a psychiatrist, and mother, a pianist, both encouraged her interest in science. She attended Cedarvale Public School, Vaughn Road Collegiate, and the University of Toronto. She obtained her B. Sc. at University College in astronomy and astrophysics in 1979, her M.Sc. in 1980, and her Ph. D. in astronomy in 1984. She is married to astronomer, Barry Madore, who is also an alumnus. In fact, her father, Dr. Harvey Freedman, her late grandfather, Dr. Samuel Rosen, her sister Janis Freedman Bellow, and brother Robert Freedman are all U of T graduates.

In 1984, she was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena. She was hired onto the permanent faculty in 1987, and became the Crawford H. Greenewalt Chair and Director of the Observatories in 2003. During her tenure as director, she has been the leader of an international project to build a 25-metre optical telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope. This 7-mirror telescope is larger than any optical telescope now in existence. It will be located in the Andes Mountains in Chile, and is scheduled for completion in 2023.

Freedman is renowned for her work in observational cosmology. A major area of her focus has been to measure the current rate of expansion of the universe, a quantity known as the Hubble constant, which determines the age and size of the universe. In the 1990s, Freedman led an international team of astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to make a measurement of the Hubble constant accurate to 10%, resolving a long-standing debate about the size and age of the universe.

She has also studied the evolution of stars within nearby galaxies, and distant supernovae, very bright explosions of stars at the end point of their evolution. With supernovae, she has been studying the properties of dark energy, the dominant component of our universe, which is responsible for its acceleration. She is currently using the Spitzer Space Telescope and telescopes in Chile to refine measurements of the Hubble constant and provide more stringent constraints on the nature of dark energy.

Freedman is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences. She is the recipient of numerous prizes and awards, including the Magellanic Premium of the American Philosophical Society and the prestigious Gruber Award for Cosmology.

(Read more about Freedman in U of T Magazine.)