To me, an observation of a variable star is not a number, not a statistic. It's something very much alive. I see the estimate and imagine the observer's face light up as he or she looks at the star through a telescope.
— Janet A. Mattei
In the summer of 1969 in the US Northeast, a young astronomy student named Janet Akyüz was looking through the telescope at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island and studying photographs of V2584 Sagittarii, a faint RR Lyrae-type variable star that fluctuates in brightness in less than a day. That glorious, starlit summer night was hard to beat, and for Janet and the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), it was a summer that changed the organization's history.
"Maria Mitchell Observatory is really something," Janet recalled. "It gives students an opportunity to do real research, to gather and analyze data. Each student would be given a star — our personal star — and then report about it at the annual meeting of the AAVSO the following October." This was her first real contact with the group. When October came around, the meeting was held at the same observatory where she had spent her summer.
Observatory director Dorrit Hoffleit (S&T: February 1999, page 89), who was attending a conference in Virginia, was due to return in time to run the AAVSO meeting, but a terrible fog prevented her from getting to Nantucket. "I let Margaret Mayall, then AAVSO director, know that Janet would handle everything until I arrive," she says.
Like most AAVSO meetings, that one included a session at the observatory. "I had never seen observing as intense as that evening," said Janet. "John Bortle and Charles Scovil, two of the association's most enthusiastic observers, were looking at variables and calling out their brightness estimates one after another. Just as we were about to close the dome, two more guys came. One of them was my future husband, Mike Mattei. The two were hungry and wanted to know if there were any restaurants that were open late. The next day, we had the meeting and paper session, and that's where I gave my talk on V2582 Sagittarii."
Janet was born in Bodrum, on Turkey's picturesque southwestern coast. After graduating from high school she traveled to the United States to study at Brandeis University, from which she graduated in 1965. "I started out as a physics major but wanted to take classes in as many sciences as I could," said Janet, "so I majored in general science. After graduating I still didn't know what to do with my life, so I worked at Beth Israel Hospital for a year and a half, running its cardiopulmonary laboratory."
In 1967 she returned to her native country to teach physics and mathematics. Later on she quit teaching and began graduate studies in astronomy. During this period she heard about Hoffleit's summer program on Nantucket. "Dorrit's decision to hire me as her assistant changed my life," said Janet.
At the end of 1969 Janet became a member of the AAVSO and, three years later, while a graduate student at the University of Virginia, she married Mike Mattei. She also joined the AAVSO staff as Mayall's assistant a year before the longtime director decided to retire. "Why don't you apply for the position of director?" Mayall encouraged Janet. The latter had been an assistant for only six months, but at the AAVSO's executive council meeting in the fall of 1973, the body chose her to be director, a position she has held for the past 30 years.
Janet began her new job in awe. "I was frightened to death," she remembered. "Where could I direct the organization that would make a difference?" Her first decision was to begin digitizing incoming observations so computers could plot the light curves automatically. It turns out that Janet began her career at the right time, just as technology was allowing the building of spaceborne observatories.
On her 30th anniversary with the AAVSO, Janet was leading the organization into the brave new world of CCD observing. She had also begun the massive project of validating 10.5 million observations of 5,000 stars against the original observing reports until her illness overcame her.
"The AAVSO has lost a strong leader who had guided the organization to greatness," says longtime friend and AAVSO colleague Mario Motta. "Amateur astronomers around the world have lost a mentor. I, along with many others who knew her well, have lost a dear friend. She will be deeply missed."
A Boston Globe obituary about Janet Mattei appeared in the April 7th newspaper.