Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Astronomer of the Month: Amber Straughn

Each month we will highlight a member of the CANDELS team by presenting an interview introducing them and what it's like to be an astronomer. This month's Astronomer is Amber Straughn.

Tell us a little about yourself!

Hi! I’m Amber Straughn. I work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD as a Civil Servant Scientist (my formal title is “Research Astrophysicist”) and as the Deputy Project Scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Science Communications. I’m also on Goddard’s WFIRST science team. I grew up in a tiny rural farming town in north-central Arkansas (Bee Branch, to be specific, not that anyone ever knows where that is!). I got my B.S. in Physics at University of Arkansas (Go Razorbacks!) and my M.S. and Ph.D. in Physics at Arizona State University, all the while focusing on astrophysics. I did my first postdoc at Goddard through the NASA Postdoctoral Program, and was hired by NASA in 2011.

What is your specific area of research? What is your role within the CANDELS team? 

I am broadly interested in galaxy evolution, and specifically how galaxies gain their mass over time; as well as the interplay between galaxy interactions, star formation, and supermassive black hole growth. I’ve done work on both galaxy morphologies and also looking at emission-line galaxies using HST grism spectra. I am an original co-I on the CANDELS proposal, which was submitted back when I was a postdoc at Goddard.

What made you want to become an astronomer? At what age did you know you were interested in astronomy? 

I really have always known I wanted to be an astronomer. As I mentioned above, I grew up in an extremely rural part of the US. There wasn’t a lot to do in my hometown, but the night sky was -- and still is -- breathtaking. I was pulled in by the night sky from as early as I can remember. I would drag my family outside to watch meteor showers and eclipses, and I remember asking my parents ridiculous questions about how the Universe worked… I distinctly remember at one point when I was very young and asked my mom something that she didn’t know the answer to, that she told me: “I don’t know. But you can find out the answer yourself someday.” That gave me the initial motivation I needed to pursue this very privileged path of studying the Universe for a living.

What obstacles have you encountered on your path to becoming an astronomer and how did you overcome them? 

Aside from the very real obstacles of getting through the first year of grad school (and qualifying exams, and full loads of classes and TA’ing, etc., that everyone goes through!), I would say that I’m lucky to not have had any huge obstacles. I am, however, a first generation college student. So that did present its own challenges. Coming from a small town, with a tight-knit extended blue-collar family where nobody really ventures too far from home, I did encounter some skepticism and negative feedback from people close to me that didn’t understand what I wanted to do. It was a weird thing to “leave”…leave your hometown, your family. But I’m grateful that my immediate family -- especially my mom -- has always been extremely supportive of me! And of course being a woman in a male-dominated field has at times been challenging. I’m grateful that I’ve never experienced overt harassment or discrimination, but as others have more eloquently elaborated on…sometimes it’s the constant “small” things that add up.
Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

I’m very grateful for many role models and mentors I’ve had along my career path. My undergrad academic physics advisor at the University of Arkansas (Lin Oliver) was one of my earliest and most influential mentors. He helped convince me that I could succeed on this path very early on as a not-very-well prepared college student, when I was sometimes worried about my capabilities (imposter syndrome is real!). I’m happy to say that we’re still in contact! 

What is it like to be an astronomer? What is your favorite aspect? 

Is there anything better than doing something you love as a career? It’s wonderful. In my current job at NASA, I do a lot of work on future space missions that enable astronomy, and science communications work, in addition to my own research. I mostly use Hubble data for my research. And for me, Hubble’s always “been up there” (it was launched when I was in elementary school). Working at Goddard, I get to see hardware for the James Webb Space Telescope as it’s being developed, and there’s something that’s so cool about that. 

What motivates you in your research? 

I think it’s generally just the drive to find out something new, and to feel like I’ve contributed -- even if it’s only a tiny bit -- to this grand endeavor of understanding our Universe. 

What is your favorite astronomical facility? 

Well, that would have to be Hubble! I think it’s amazing that not only has Hubble so profoundly changed the way we understand the Universe, but it’s also completely captivated the imagination of the public.

Where do you see yourself in the future? What are your career aspirations? 

Right now, I can’t imagine a place I’d rather work than NASA. But maybe…astronaut? Who knows!

If you could have any astronomy related wish, what would it be? 

Sort of unrelated to actual astronomy research, but if I could wave the magic wand, I’d totally go to Mars.

What is your favorite, most mind-boggling astronomy fact? 

That our physical bodies are literally made of exploded stars. There’s something so poetic about that…and it’s actually literal fact. To get a bit more philosophical…I think it speaks to our interconnectedness as human beings -- to each other, and to the cosmos itself! 

Is there anything else you would like for the public to know about you or astronomy in general? 

I think sometimes the public, and/or kids who think about becoming scientists, think that scientists are these super-intelligent socially-awkward genius loners who spend all their time in the lab or “doing science”. And it’s not surprising that people think that way…that’s often the way that scientists are portrayed in the media. But the reality is that the vast majority of us are regular, everyday people (who do have an aptitude for science and math, and certainly an increased interest in it) -- people who have families, outside hobbies (I’m both a pilot and a faithful yoga practitioner!), and hopes and dreams unrelated to science. Science is a big part of our lives, to be sure, but feel free to talk to us…we’re a lot like you!

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