Stars of Into the Unknown – Dr. Amber Straughn

woman's headshotName:

Dr. Amber Straughn



Job Title:

Associate Director of NASA Goddard Astrophysics Science Division & James Webb Space Telescope Deputy Project Scientist for Communications

What that means:

I am on the leadership team for NASA Goddard’s Astrophysics Science Division, a group of >300 astronomers, technicians, postdocs, students, and support staff. Part of my job is to make sure that the world knows about the science work being done in our Division, so I lead our Communications team who writes science news stories, posts content on social media, and does outreach. I also work to make sure our scientists are recognized within NASA for their great work, are nominated for awards, etc. I work with other scientists on new space missions; I’m on the science team for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2021 and be even more amazing than Hubble! I study how stars form in distant galaxies, and what happens when galaxies interact.

Who/what inspired me to do what I am doing now:

I grew up on a farm in a tiny town in rural Arkansas, far away from any big cities, and the night sky was amazing dark and beautiful. You can see thousands of stars, and that’s what got me interested in astronomy as a kid. I’ve always loved space, and decided at a pretty young age that I wanted to study it!

I hold a degree(s) in the following areas:

Bachelor of Science in Physics, Masters in Physics, Ph.D. in Physics

What I’m most looking forward to seeing or learning about from JWST:

I study galaxies, so I’m VERY interested to see what the very, very distant/young galaxies are like! These are galaxies that are completely hidden from us right now…we have no idea what they’re like, and need a telescope like Webb in order to see them. I’m also very excited about what Webb will tell us about exoplanets—planets orbiting stars outside our Solar System.

Share an experience or obstacle you’ve experienced in school or early career and how you overcame it:

I went to a very small rural high school, and did very well in all my classes (we didn’t have AP classes or anything like that) so I went to college thinking I was REALLY smart, and signed up for all the Honor classes…Honors Physics, Honors Calculus, etc. Then I started learning that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did! I had to drop all those classes and enroll in the regular classes, and that was really hard on my ego. But I didn’t give up; I kept pushing forward and passed all my classes with good grades. It was a LOT of work, but worth it!

What I do in my spare time:

I am a pilot and own a small 4-seater single engine Cessna! I love to fly. I also try to stay active: I run three days a week and practice yoga almost every day.

Is what you’re doing now what you always wanted to do growing up?

YES! Working at NASA is really a dream come true for me! I love my job and the brilliant people I get to work with. There were times when the road to get here was tough…getting a Ph.D. in Physics was a LOT of very hard work…but it was all worth it.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in a STEM career?

1. Find mentors — teachers or counselors — that can help you and encourage you along the way, and help you meet new people and learn new things and find opportunities. Enthusiasm, passion, and dedication are almost as important as grades and test scores (in some cases more so). And 2. seek out and seize those opportunities that do come along (being involved in science clubs, summer STEM camps or internships, etc.), because those are launching points to your next step!

With 1 being never/not important and 5 always/very important:

How important, or frequently used, is Science in your day-to-day job activities?

☐1 ☐2 ☐3 ☐4 ☒5

How important, or frequently used, is Technology in your day-to-day job activities?

☐1 ☐2 ☐3 ☐4 ☒5

How important, or frequently used, is Engineering in your day-to-day job activities?

☐1 ☐2 ☐3 ☒4 ☐5

How important, or frequently used, is Math in your day-to-day job activities?

☐1 ☐2 ☐3 ☒4 ☐5

Other skills, in addition to STEM, that are necessary to be successful in my job:

Being able to get along with other people is important for almost any job, but especially if you want to be in a leadership position…just being respectful and considerate is really important! Listening to other peoples’ ideas, not getting stuck in one way of thinking, etc.

Photo Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

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