Alumni Profiles

The Road Taken
Margaret Ann Shea '58, '61G defied expectations

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Perry Smith/UNH Photographic Services

Before she came to UNH, Margaret "Peggy" Ann Shea '58, '61G had been the top math student in her high school class, and she did even better in physics. Her father, an electrical engineer, encouraged her to major in science or engineering. Torn between chemistry and physics, she decided to give physics a try.

It made perfect sense. Except that the year was 1954. At freshman orientation, where she was one of only three women who had signed up for the College of Technology, the dean took her aside to tell her that her chosen path would be "demanding and difficult" and she might do better in the College of Liberal Arts.

This was not the first time she had been treated differently because she was female—nor would it be the last. Although her fellow physics majors were cordial, she still remembers the first day in her engineering drawing course, when the instructor announced, "Well, fellas, we've got two girls in here. How fast can we get 'em out?"

Some slights were subtle, like the time when Shea—the first woman to earn an advanced degree in physics from UNH—was assigned "coffee detail" at a regional conference. Others were less subtle. In the Air Force research lab where she worked for many years, people sometimes insinuated that she got promotions only because she was a woman. Clearly, she had taken a path that was not expected of a woman—the road not taken, she likes to call it, referring to the Robert Frost poem by that name. Sometimes it was tough, she says, "but I have the tenacity of a bull."

Still, Shea says she benefitted from an excellent education and the support of key figures, beginning with her parents. "If I said I couldn't do something," she recalls, "I was usually asked 'Why not?'" At UNH, Professor John Lockwood hired her, as a sophomore, to help with his research monitoring cosmic rays on Mt. Washington and in Durham. Though she started with data entry at a wage of 90 cents an hour, the work ultimately gave her a wealth of knowledge, material for a thesis and an entree into a field where she forged a 50-year career researching the interplay between cosmic rays and the Earth's magnetic field.

And what a career it's been. Shea has published more than 300 scientific papers, edited the journal Advances in Space Research and won numerous awards. Asked which accomplishment pleases her most, she first cites "working successfully with my husband, Don Smart, for 45 years and enjoying every minute of it." Only then does she go into her achievements, including the geomagnetic cutoff rigidity tables that are used by NASA and the FAA to determine radiation exposure of astronauts and airline crews in flight.

Shea's career has also given her the opportunity to travel extensively. She's seen the midnight sun in Finland, hiked in Siberia and attended both a Hindu wedding and a Buddhist funeral. Saying yes to physics in 1954 truly did lead her onto a road less traveled, and for Shea, that has made all the difference.

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