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People You Should Know: Dr. Lynn Cominsky

Author: Kathleen Willett
June, 2015 Issue

SSU Professor Lynn Cominsky inspires a new generation to embrace science and technology.

“As a child, I wanted to build things,” said Dr. Lynn Cominsky at a presentation delivered in early March in Santa Rosa. A lively, energetic woman, she’s chairman of the physics and astronomy department at Sonoma State University (SSU). She built the rocket currently hanging from the ceiling of her office, blasting it off in the Nevada desert some years ago. Broadly smiling and personable, Cominsky can as easily discuss chickens and horses as she can X-ray astronomy.
What sorts of challenges did she face in getting where she is today? What resources were required in reaching her goal and achieving success? Her story potentially lays out a road map for young women starting out in careers, but also for our entire community in enabling talented people of both genders to find fulfilling work, thus enriching themselves and society.
Cominsky first learned about constellations from her Girl Scout troop leader (her mother, who also worked as a secretary). Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., Cominsky went to public schools before attending Brandeis University, where she was one of the first students to take an introductory computer course.
Her parents weren’t scientists, but they held high expectations for their daughter. She was expected to not only graduate from college, but also to go on to medical or graduate school. Cominsky was drawn to chemistry, computers and physics. As a child, it was often she who built the models her brothers received as gifts. It was she who played with the chemistry sets her brothers ignored.
After graduating from college, she worked at Harvard-Smithhsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., where she met Christine Jones, a scientist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, who became her mentor. The young Cominsky was encouraged to continue her education. She became determined to follow in Jones’ footsteps, eventually doing exactly that.
Graduate studies in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were very difficult. The encouragement of her mentor and the support of a friend at MIT sustained her. But it was her determination and willingness to work hard that finally got her through. Cominsky graduated with her Ph.D. in physics from MIT in just four years—the norm there is six years.
Engaging and enthusiastic, Cominsky has been at SSU for 26 years and, since 2004, she’s been department chair. She’s the first and only tenured female professor in the department of physics and astronomy.
As director of SSU’s Education and Public Outreach Group, she’s also currently involved in several educational initiatives to advance the basics for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning to all students in the K-12 arena. This work includes innovations such as: creating interactive online video games and Web-based comic strips to teach math and physical science.
Parental high expectations, beginning at an early age, established the framework for the career choices Cominsky made. Stimulation of her creativity in her areas of interest, such as building models and playing with chemistry sets, helped her determine her field of study. Mentoring as a graduate student by both women and men sustained her in her efforts. But determination, tenacity and hard work were essential in finally accomplishing her goals.
“When asked by students for advice, I tell them to ‘choose the harder thing for you, it always yields greater choices down the road,’” she says.



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