Women in the High-Energy Universe: Pepi Fabbiano

Dr. Giuseppina (Pepi) Fabbiano is a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory where she studies, among other things, galaxies, black holes and the rest of the high-energy Universe using Chandra and other telescopes.

It would be fair to say that I stumbled into astronomy. I grew up in a family of teachers, professors and professionals, both men and women, and there never was any doubt that I had to go to university and then get a good job. I was a precocious learner and always ‘first of the class.’ I won the math prize in high school and was one of a busload of high school students from the whole of Italy rewarded with a prize visit to France.

I decided to study physics because I wanted a chance of discovering something new. My mother would have preferred that I followed in my parents’ footsteps and studied classics (Latin & Greek). A favorite uncle pointed out that aspiring to be a researcher was a dangerous choice and perhaps I should look at something more practical.

But anyway, physics it was. Besides the subject matter, there were three additional incentives: the Physics Department of Palermo University in Italy (my home city) was known to be extremely selective, and I have always liked challenges; also it was known to have several international collaborations and my dream back then was to leave Sicily and explore the wide world, far from my family; finally, I was pathologically shy and thought that being a scientist would save me from human interactions (I was wrong on that).

I had my chance when Pippo Vaiana became a professor in Palermo. Pippo, who became my thesis advisor, was a colleague of Riccardo Giacconi at American Science & Engineering in Cambridge MA, during the heydays of X-ray astronomy. He was responsible for the solar camera on NASA SkyLab, which first revealed the complex morphology of the Sun in X-rays; in later years he was responsible for the revival of the Palermo Observatory that it is now named after him.

Giacconi and his group, meanwhile, were busy analyzing the data of the UHURU satellite, the first to survey the sky in the X-ray band. This was a whole new discovery field and clearly exciting. I was introduced to Giacconi in Palermo where he stopped to give a physics seminar on his was to the 1972 Astrophysics Summer School in Erice. I was also invited to go to Erice myself by Vaiana. Professors in that school included Geoff and Margaret Burbidge, who were then at the peak of their careers and scientific influence.

Getting to Erice was not an easy endeavor for a young Sicilian girl of that era. My mother wouldn’t let me go, because I would be un-chaperoned sharing living quarters with male colleagues. I had the bright idea to tell her that Margaret Burbidge was indeed going to chaperone me and somehow that fib worked.

Pepi Fabbiano

In Erice, I met some of the colleagues I got to interact with in later years, and decided that I wanted to do a thesis in X-ray astronomy. Fortunately, Giacconi invited me to visit his group in Cambridge; I made sure to take him home for dinner so that my parents could meet him and allow me to go, and I went to Cambridge to pursue my dream. After all these years, I am still working in X-ray astronomy, and having fun with it.

-Pepi Fabbiano

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