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The path towards becoming a research astronomer

I’ve been helping out with “RealWorld-InWorld,” an engineering design challenge in which James Webb Space Telescope is participating. We’ve had various project folks give talks or Q&A sessions in the virtual world being used for the project. I recently posted an interview with Keith Parrish, a sunshield engineer.

We have one more interview, this time with research astrophysicist, lead scientist for Webb education/outreach, and Blueshift guest blogger, Dr. Amber Straughn.

The following short dialogue transpired between Amber Straughn and RealWorld-InWorld staff Thursday, March 19, 2011, in NIA Universe, a virtual Second Life-like environment.

Straughn presented InWorld to an audience of high school student competitors, college student team leads, faculty advisors, and RWIW enthusiasts. Her topic, which revolved around her role as an observational astronomer on the James Webb Space Telescope project, included discussions of galaxy mergers, star formation, and her hopes and dreams for what Webb will yield for her field.


RWIW Staff: How does someone become involved in galaxy evolution research? For our students can you provide some insight on how to embark down that path – academically and otherwise?

Straughn: I’ll tell you a little about my path and what I think is really important. Jim mentioned in my introduction that I grew up in a small town and attended a small high school. My high school was really quite small and so I didn’t get many opportunities to take advanced science classes . . . if you can take advantage of those science and math classes, a good foundation in science and math is really important to open academic opportunities. I didn’t really get a lot of opportunity with computer classes, 10 years ago, so take advantage of those . . . I didn’t realize then that as a research astronomer you need to be able to do computer coding, so if you’re interested in coding, take those classes now.

If you’re in high school or college now, take as many science and math classes as possible and take advantage of opportunities that will set you apart.  Look for summer academic camps for high school students.  When I was at University of Arkansas I wrote an honors thesis on data I took with a small telescope there. Also at UA,  during a summer program (NSF’s REU program), I got to go to MIT Haystack Observatory near Boston, where I got to work on an astronomy research project with about 10 other students . . . I’m actually still good friends with a girl from that program.  It was a great experience and a lot of fun!

Any extra programs like that that you can participate in will set you apart for graduate school. Once you get to graduate school it’s full on taking courses for a year or two, and you can look at NASA programs all along the way. As an undergrad I took part in the reduced gravity program with JSC.

My advice is . . . find a good mentor who will be your “cheerleader” and help you get to where you want to be. When choosing grad schools look at what research they’re doing there, and see if that aligns with what you’re looking to do.

RWIW Staff: Sounds like excellent advice and a history of great experiences. Now, your thesis work is in merging and star forming galaxies. What sort of information do you believe is lacking due to current technological constraints?

Straughn: I think this goes back to the things I’ve talked about before (during the live presentation) as far as what we’re hoping to learn from JWST. As far as telescopes go in particular, you’re always sort of limited by the size of the telescope – which determines the amount of light you can gather, and the resolution – in that sense, the current telescopes we have limit what we can see.  It seems it’s always the case that the most exciting things we discover are the things we didn’t know to ask about in the first place.

Flight Mirror Cryo Testing
Six of Webb’s flight primary mirrors being tested. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham

RWIW Staff: With your research interests and academic/professional background you stand to gain enormous amounts of information from JWST’s four science themes [The End of the Dark Ages: First Light and Relonization; Assembly of Galaxies; The Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems; Planetary Systems and the Origins of Life)] . . . what are you most excited to discover?

Straughn: I am excited to see what the first galaxies will look like!

RWIW Staff: Switching gears, could you explain for our students what a post-doctoral fellowship is, and why you chose to engage in one?

Straughn: Well, for the past two and a half years I have been working as a post-doc at NASA Goddard. Basically if you decide you want to be a research scientist, and you want to make a living doing research, you can do that by going to a University to teach and help students research – or, as I did, you can go to NASA or other lab-type institutions. In order to get to either of those two places, or anywhere you’re doing research, writing papers, and contributing to the field, you need to do post-docs. Sort of like what a residency is for a doctor; a training time before a permanent job. It can be a long path, some people do two or more post-docs, but it’s worth it if that’s what you want to do.

The RealWorld-InWorld project is wrapping up for this year, but we’ll be doing it again next year. For more information about the RealWorld-InWorld Project and to learn how to get involved next year, visit:


1 Comment

  • Surveys says:

    I think its great to see that educational facilities are slowly moving online and can connect to millions of others without barriers.

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