In Memory of Liese van Zee

In Memory of Liese van Zee

We regret the loss of our colleague and friend, Liese van Zee, who passed away unexpectedly on Feb. 13, 2024. A memorial celebration of her life will be held in Bloomington on March 21. Details will be forthcoming soon.


  • Ph.D., Astronomy, Cornell University, 1996
  • M.S., Astronomy, Cornell University, 1994
  • B.S., Astronomy and Chemistry, Haverford College, 1991

Liese van Zee

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest as the cherished youngest of three children, Liese’s life was full of both joy and adventure. She relished learning and exploring the how and why of the world around her. She carried those strengths throughout her life, as an undergraduate, a graduate student, a postdoctoral fellow, and a faculty member in Astronomy at Indiana University.

As an undergraduate at Haverford College, Liese studied both astronomy and chemistry, graduating in 1991 after earning High Honors in both subjects. Her time was spent both challenging her professors and forging a group of close friendships, which she sustained throughout her life. She earned undergraduate awards from both the American Chemical Society (in analytical chemistry) and the American Institute of Chemists.

Following her graduation from Haverford, Liese began life as a graduate student in Astronomy at Cornell University working with Professor Martha Haynes (an Indiana University alumna!). Under her guidance, Liese began her career-long fascination with dwarf galaxies. Her first research paper, “Hydrogen Envelopes Around Low Luminosity Galaxies,” published in the Astronomical Journal (1995) with Haynes and Riccardo Giovanelli (also an IU alumnus), mapped the distribution of hydrogen gas around these faint galaxies using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. They found that many of these faint galaxies nonetheless contain large amounts of hydrogen gas that extended well beyond the boundaries of the visible galaxy. At Cornell, Liese received a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship to support her graduate studies.

After graduating from Cornell with an M.S. in Astronomy in 1994 and a Ph.D. in Astronomy in 1996, Liese headed west to become a Jansky Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array radio telescope in Socorro, New Mexico. Her paper “Spectroscopy of Outlying H II Regions in Spiral Galaxies: Abundances and Radial Gradients,: with John Salzer (now an IU faculty member), Martha Haynes, and two others, presented optical spectroscopy of nearly 200 H II regions in 13 spiral galaxies obtained with the 200 inch telescope on Mt. Palomar in California. From these data, they were able to measure the abundances of key elements to determine how the abundances of these elements decreased outward from the center to the outer edges of the galaxies by up to a factor of 5.
Liese went on to serve as a Research Associate at the Hertzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, B.C. from 1999-2001. While in Victoria, Liese continued her research on dwarf galaxies, particularly focusing on the evolution of these galaxies and their histories of star formation.

In 2001, Liese joined the faculty in the Department of Astronomy at Indiana University as an assistant professor. She continued to focus her research on surveys of dwarf galaxies, making use of both the WIYN 0.9-m telescope at Kitt Peak to image the galaxies and the WIYN 3.5-m telescope to obtain spatially resolved spectroscopy to study how star formation occurred in these galaxies. Her work was funded by the National Science Foundation and by various NASA missions including GALEX, Spitzer, and Hubble. She received an NSF CAREER award in 2004. Along the way, Liese mentored seven Ph.D. students, three additional master’s students, and 30 undergraduate research students.

Liese cared passionately about undergraduate education, and created, along with others in the department, a new general education course, The Art of Astronomy. This course used beautiful astronomy images from ground-based and space-based telescopes to explain basic concepts in astronomy, exploring how light, atomic physics, and technology work together to create the images we all enjoy. Liese taught at all levels of our curriculum, from general education courses to graduate courses, always striving to provide the most effective experiences to engage students and help them learn astronomy.

Liese also provided exemplary service to the discipline through her service as Chair of the Committee on Radio Frequencies (CORF) of the National Academy of Science. She first became a member of CORF in 2010, became Vice Chair in 2014 and Chair in 2017. Under her leadership, CORF took an active role in protecting radio frequency allocations for science to assure that critical regions of the radio spectrum remain usable for research. During this period of rapid expansion and exploitation of radio frequency use for communications, medical devices and monitoring, avionics, automobile safety, and many other services, CORF played a key role. Radio emissions that spill into protected bands profoundly limit scientific research using those bands, not only for astronomers but for many other fields that rely on remote sensing of radio emissions. Examples include the 5G communications network (impacting storm prediction!) and constellations of satellites to provide wide area Internet access. As Chair, Liese led the Committee through numerous National Academy filings with the Federal Communications Commission outlining the effects on scientific research of proposed rule changes and commercial requests for new uses of the radio spectrum. Her technical prowess enabled her to go toe-to-toe with large commercial interests, and to document clearly (and quantitatively!) what the effect of proposed new radio emissions will be.
Liese’s service to protect the radio spectrum for science was recognized by the Academy with her appointment as an Associate of the National Academy of Sciences.

Liese was a powerful presence in astronomy, in our department, and at Indiana University. She leaves a legacy of rigor and leadership, as well as a legacy of profound impact on her students and friends. We will miss her.