Sandra Faber was born in 1944 in Boston to an engineer father and a housewife mother. She received a B.A. in Physics, with High Honors, from Swarthmore College in 1966 and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard University in 1972. She has spent her entire academic career at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she now holds the title of Professor Emerita. She is also an Astronomer Emerita of the University of California Observatories, as well as a University Professor within the University of California system, a permanent honorific position.
As a child Faber was “interested in all kinds of science”—weather, spiders, star charts. She enjoyed reading popular books about astronomy, but astronomers themselves seemed “impossibly distant,” she says. “Not because they were men, but because they were famous. I got the impression that to do astronomy you needed to be Einstein, you needed to be Hubble.” Thanks to the encouragement of teachers at the public school she attended in suburban Pittsburgh, she decided to pursue a career in science.
For her application essay to Swarthmore College, she wrote about wanting to investigate “where the universe came from,” but she didn’t know whether she wanted to pursue the question through the study of “the small”—particle physics—or “the large”—astronomy. Although she chose the latter, the quandary itself proved to be prescient: The history of cosmology since the 1960s has consisted to a considerable degree of a so-called quarks-to-cosmos paradigm, one that she herself helped shape by investigating the effects of dark matter (presumably an as-yet-undiscovered subatomic particle) on the formation, structure, and evolution of galaxies and superclusters of galaxies, the largest objects in the universe.
Among Sandra Faber’s dozens of honors and awards are the early-career recognitions as an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship in 1977, the Bart J. Bok Prize from Harvard in 1978, and inclusion among Science Digest’s 100 Best American Scientists Under 40 in 1984. For “outstanding mid-career work” she received the 1986 Dannie Heineman Prize from the American Astronomical Society. And her lifetime achievement awards—in addition to the Gruber Prize—are the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship from the American Astronomical Society, the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Medal from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the Karl Schwarzschild Medal from the Astronomische Gesellschaft. She is a longtime a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2013 President Barack Obama presented Faber with the National Medal of Science.