Friday, November 9, 2012

What's it like to work at NASA? (Quick answer: Awesome!)

My name is Amber Straughn, and I'm an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, about 15 miles outside of Washington DC. I study the morphologies and star forming properties of intermediate redshift (z~2) galaxies using both imaging and grism spectroscopic data from Hubble. I've been here at Goddard for a little over four years now -- but let me start from the beginning of my story.

I grew up in a small farming town in rural Arkansas -- the exact type of place you think of when you think of dark night skies. Like many astronomers, it's exactly this that got me started on my path towards astronomy. My hometown, Bee Branch, is still just as dark today as it was when I was a kid, and I always enjoy going back home and reacquainting myself with the skies that drew me in years ago. I'm one of those astronomers that knew from a very early age that I wanted to study the universe -- I was very interested in elementary school and had decided for sure in Jr. High that astronomy was the path I wanted to pursue. After high school, I left my tiny town for the slightly larger town of Fayetteville, AR, where I got my B.S. in Physics and did my honors research project on eclipsing binary stars using the small telescope at the University of Arkansas. I also did a summer REU at MIT Haystack Observatory, where I got my feet wet in radio astronomy, studying SiO masers using VLBI data.  After undergrad, I went on to Arizona State University, where I got my M.S. and Ph.D. in Physics, all the while doing research in astronomy. It was in grad school where I first got to work with Hubble data and really focus in on my main interest area: the distant universe.

While my academic path after high school was somewhat typical, it seems that NASA has always been in my pathway. Of course, I grew up watching the shuttle launches, and was an instant fan of Hubble after it launched. My first "official" interaction with NASA was as an undergrad, when I was part of a 4-person team that designed and flew an experiment on NASA's KC-135 zero-gravity plane, aka "the vomit comet" (I didn't vomit!). Needless to say, being weightless was an unforgettable experience - -to this day, one of the most fun things I've ever done - -and I was hooked on NASA from that point on. I was an Arizona NASA Space Grant fellow for a couple of summers during grad school, and during my third year at ASU received the NASA Harriett Jenkins Predoctoral Fellowship for women and minorities in STEM, which funded me for the remaining three years of my grad studies. The Jenkins Fellowship funded me to go to a NASA center during the summers for research, and so I came to Goddard. After grad school, I got a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellowship at Goddard, and after 2.5 years as a postdoc, was hired for a permanent position at Goddard.

Working at NASA is in many ways similar to any other academic position in astronomy in that you do research in collaborations and teams, you write grant proposals and telescope proposals, you present your research at meetings and workshops, and you mentor students.  You do community work like referee papers and sit on committees, etc., and you do public outreach. The key thing that makes NASA different from a university is of course the lack of teaching duties in a classroom (although some NASA folk are also adjunct faculty at nearby universities…and we collaborate extensively with local universities). Here at NASA, we have "mission duties" or other similar work that carries on NASA's mission.  Which means (and this is why it's awesome!) -- I get to work on THIS:

JWST Mirrors
…which is of course the James Webb Space Telescope, the 100x-more-powerful successor to Hubble that will be launched in 2018. Specifically, I'm on the Project Science team; I'm the Deputy Project Scientist for Communications/Outreach. Part of my official duties for JWST -- in addition to thinking about the science that we'll do with the observatory in the future -- is to ensure the scientific accuracy of our public-facing content (press releases, web pages, social media, etc.) and help get the message of JWST out to the world.  And by "to the world", I mean to the public, the media, and legislators (i.e. Congress).

A single JWST mirror segment being inspected (left) and the subshield (right)

One of the fantastic things about working at NASA is the people I get to work with on a day to day basis. There are plenty of brilliant people that work here; in any given week I routinely have conversations with Nobel laureates (specifically the Senior Project Scientist for JWST, Dr. John Mather) and astronauts. Here at Goddard, I can walk downstairs and see world-class detector labs with cutting edge technology being developed, or take a stroll across the parking lot to the world's largest Class 10,000 cleanroom (which has a live webcam, by the way, so everyone can have a peek at what's going on) where JWST is being assembled. There are all kinds of crazy cool test facilities here at Goddard, including a huge centrifuge, thermal vacuum chamber, and acoustics testing facility where spacecraft make their way through before being launched. Since I'm an astrophysicist, before I came to Goddard my focus was of course on astrophysics missions -- but being here has given me a new appreciation for the huge array of science missions that NASA launches in addition to astrophysics: missions in earth science, heliophysics, and planetary science. Goddard is such a cool place that it also attracts a fair share of celebrity types. In the last couple of years we've had Seth Green, Bill Nye, and Kal Penn come through for VIP tours of Goddard, to name a few. One of my most fun days at Goddard so far was filming a spoof music video about Hubble and JWST with a crew from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for his "Hubble Gotchu" segment, which turned out hilarious -- so much fun!

In some ways, my job at NASA is easy because this project is easy to get excited about: JWST will be the largest telescope ever launched into space, and will answer huge astronomy questions -- questions about the origins of galaxies, of stellar systems, and of planets capable of supporting life. I'm absolutely convinced that this telescope will reveal mysteries of the universe that we haven't even thought to wonder about yet. And this is why it's so incredible to work at NASA, to be able to help a tiny bit in furthering humanity's search for answers about our incredible universe.

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