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Q&A With NASA Astrophysicist Amber Straughn

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NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn, who’s appearing in the 2015 World Science Festival program “Cool Jobs,” is working on the next big thing in space science: the James Webb Space Telescope. Her workday is all about tackling big questions about galaxies, black holes, star formation, and other cosmic conundrums. She was also kind enough to answer some questions from us about life as an astrophysicist:

World Science Festival: What would be your ideal day at work?

Amber Straughn: I always start my day off with a big cup of coffee while reading through the day’s new astrophysics papers published online. An ideal day would be getting new Hubble data—there’s something really special and exciting about seeing a new bit of the universe for the first time or in a new way. But of course that doesn’t happen every day!

More typically, I spend part of the day working with Hubble data or writing for papers, reviewing co-author’s or a student’s or postdoc’s papers, which is the real “science” part of my work. Part of my day also involves working with the science team for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is launching in 2018. As an astrophysicist, my role is to serve as the scientific liaison between the science team and the communications and legislative affairs team at NASA Goddard, to ensure that all our public-facing materials are scientifically accurate. So I review press releases, some social media content, website updates, etc. And I try to spend part of my day communicating with the public, typically via Twitter (@astraughnomer) or by working on public talks that I give regularly.

WSF: How do you analyze the images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and how will you analyze images from the James Webb telescope? What will the differences be between the two devices?

Straughn: A big part of being an astrophysicist is being able to write code to analyze your data. We use available code and write custom software in order to analyze Hubble images and spectra. It’s data, so the work is done at a computer. I still occasionally do some observing at ground-based telescopes (though I did it a lot more as a grad student). With that, you physically travel to the telescope, go up on the mountain, and stay up all night taking data. Space telescopes are awesome (that’s why I work at NASA!) but there’s something about being at a telescope on a mountain that makes you feel like a real astronomer. Telescopes in space and on the ground work together to give us a more complete picture of the universe.

For the James Webb Space Telescope, actual analysis of the images will be done in much the same way, although the data itself will be different. One of the key differences between Hubble and JWST is the kind of light that they observe. Hubble sees the Universe primarily in optical/visible light, the light that your eyes see; JWST will see the Universe in infrared light, which is redder than what your eyes see. The reason for this is completely driven by the science goals of the telescope. But don’t worry … the images from JWST will be even more spectacular than the ones from Hubble. All in all, considering all the new advances on JWST, it will be about 100 times more powerful than Hubble.

WSF: What are some of the discoveries you are most interested in investigating?

Straughn: One of the things I’m most interested in is how galaxies change over time. More specifically, I’m interested in how the rate at which galaxies form stars changes over time, how that process happens, and how that’s related to how the galaxies themselves are changing … whether they are undergoing collisions with other galaxies, or are gobbling up smaller galaxies, or accreting gas from the outside. These processes also affect how huge black holes at the centers of galaxies grow, another process that I’m very interested in.

The James Webb Space Telescope will shed new light on all these processes (pun intended) and will also allow us to see much further back in time than we can with Hubble—all the way back to when we think some of the very first galaxies formed in the Universe over 13.5 billion years ago. Using these powerful telescopes, we are able to literally look back in time and see the Universe as it was in the past.

And although I’m interested in galaxies, I’ll make a confession. I think one of the most exciting areas of science that JWST will revolutionize is the study of exoplanets. Kepler has set the stage, and revealed to us that planets orbiting other stars are common, something we didn’t know until very recently. JWST will have the capability to take unprecedented, detailed spectra of exoplanet atmospheres in the infrared. One of the great things about building huge “general purpose” observatories like JWST is that we can study the Universe in so many ways, from our cosmic backyard of the solar system, all the way out to the most distant reaches of the Universe.

WSF: Did you always know you wanted to be an astronomer? What inspired you to pursue this path?

Straughn: I actually have pretty much always known that I wanted to be an astronomer, from the time I was a little kid. I grew up in a tiny farming town called Bee Branch in rural Arkansas, far away from city lights, and the sky was (and still is) spectacular. I spent many nights as a kid on a blanket in the field behind our house looking up at the stars and wondering how it all worked. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to pursue this path of studying the Universe, and there’s no cooler place to work in the world than at NASA!

WSF: What can a young person interested in astronomy do, outside of school, to pursue this as a career?

Straughn: My most general advice is that if you’re interested in it, go for it! Read lots about it outside textbooks. Kids today have resources that I didn’t have when I was a kid (the internet) so there’s so much you can learn.

And this is key: Find people that are just as excited about your dreams as you are that will help you take the next step, whether they’re parents, teachers, or school counselors. Seek out summer programs in science and math. No matter where you’re from, you can find them (I did!). Spend time outside, far away from city lights if you can, actually looking at the stars. They were and still are a source of inspiration to me. Even today when I go back home to Arkansas and look up at night, I’m reminded of why I chose this path. There’s so much left that we don’t know, so many surprises waiting to be discovered.

Image: NASA

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