Catherine Pilachowski earned her B.S. in physics from Harvey Mudd College and her M.S. from the University of Hawaii. Upon completion, she continued her education at the University of Hawaii where she earned her Ph.D. in astronomy in 1975. She joined the Indiana University (IU) faculty in 2001 as a professor of astronomy and as the Daniel Kirkwood Chair in the Department of Astronomy.
Prior to joining the IU faculty, Pilachowski spent 22 years as an astronomer with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). At IU, she has served as chair of the Department of Astronomy, Interim Dean of the Office of Women's Affairs, and as Associate Dean for Graduate Education in the College of Arts and Sciences. Pilachowski has made distinguished contributions to stellar astrophysics and to the astronomical community. She was the first to recognize the importance of comparing the chemical compositions among large numbers of clusters and large numbers of stars within individual clusters. This result convincingly showed that the history of star formation in the early galaxy was not monolithic, but sporadic and complicated and spawned the creation of a large subfield of element nucleosynthesis that explores anomalously high-temperature hydrogen fusion element generation/destruction in old stellar populations. Pilachowski was also instrumental in the realization of the Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOAO (WIYN) consortium and the international Gemini Observatory project.
Pilachowski has published over 330 papers and her research has received over $1.7 million in funding. She has been named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of University Women, and the CIC Academic Leadership Program. She has been invited as a visiting lecturer to Harvard University, the Goddard Space Flight Center, and Haverford College. She has served as president of the American Astronomical Society and on numerous NSF and NASA committees.
Pilachowski received the IU Bicentennial Medal in September 2020 in recognition of her distinguished contributions to Indiana University.