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Amber Straughn - Dreaming of Deep Space in Arkansas
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Arkansas farm girl-turned-astrophysicist never thought she would be in a rap video about the James Webb Space Telescope that was shown on the “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” show.

Name: Amber N. Straughn
Title: Deputy Project Scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Communications
Formal Job Classification: Research Astrophysicist
Organization: Code 665, Observational Cosmology Laboratory, Astrophysics Science Division, Sciences and Exploration Directorate
Years at Goddard: 5
Years in Current Position: 2

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

I am an astrophysicist, and functionally serve as the deputy project scientist for James Webb Space Telescope communications. I communicate the science message about JWST to the general public and the media. I also study galaxy evolution using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, which is JWST’s predecessor.

The most exciting part of my job is studying these distant galaxies because you are studying light that has traveled through space for billions of years -- you are literally seeing galaxies as they were in the past. By studying how galaxies looked in the past, and comparing them to how galaxies currently look, we can begin to understand how galaxies change over billions of years.

What makes a good leader? What makes a good team player?

A good leader cares about their team and is enthusiastic enough to motivate his or her people. A good team player really listens to their team members’ ideas.

Is there something surprising about your background that people do not generally know?

Photo of Amber Straughn› Larger image
Photo of Amber Straughn. Credit: NASA
I was raised on a family farm in a tiny, little town in rural Arkansas. My high school had only 29 kids in our graduating class. Our family raised beef cattle and pigs. We had a big vegetable garden for the family and also several acres of watermelon, which we sold to local grocers. My dad was famous for his watermelons around our little town. I grew up hauling watermelons from the field to the truck during the summer.

What made you want to become an astronomer?

Growing up in a small town meant that we were far away from any city lights and the sky was dark and beautiful. You could see thousands of stars every night. I remember as a little kid that I wondered what they were and how they got there, and I would ask my parents questions that they didn’t know the answers to -- they told me that I would have to go discover the answers myself. My parents were very supportive of my dreams even though they never went to college. I am the oldest child in my family and the first in our family to go to college. But a little of the southern farm girl remains because I still love growing my own vegetables and watching college football (and some people tell me I still have an accent).

Amber with Merlin in Dec. 2012, when he was just 10 weeks old.› Larger image
Amber with Merlin in Dec. 2012, when he was just 10 weeks old. He's now ~130 lbs. Photo courtesy of A. Straughn

What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done at Goddard?

I guess the most unexpected thing I’ve done was in 2010: I was in a rap video shown on the “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” show. One of Jimmy Fallon’s producers and actors, whose character’s name is “Milky J,” does a segment on the show about Hubble called “Hubble Gotchu.” He came to Goddard and filmed some of us for this video as part of the “Hubble Gotchu” series. I have a speaking part and I also got to dance with Milky J. It was so silly and so much fun! I never thought when I came to NASA that I would be in a rap video on primetime national TV.

What do you enjoy most about working at Goddard?

We do big, bold, crazy fun projects like Webb. We are working on cutting-edge technology and launching it into space. We do stuff that people think is impossible. And to wrap it all up, I get to do research with the data that comes back from these telescopes. Plus, we are surrounded by people who are passionate about their work. Where else do you get to interact with Nobel laureates and astronauts on a daily basis? It really is a fantastic place to work.

What is the one thing you would tell somebody just starting their career at Goddard?

Find a mentor. Get to know all kinds of people across the center through clubs and advisory committees. Also, take advantage of the training offered here.

What is your favorite hobby?

I have been a faithful yoga practitioner for almost 10 years and got my yoga teacher training certification last summer, but yoga is more a lifestyle than a hobby. I also have two male Great Danes, a blue and a fawn who are both bigger than me … but dogs are more family than hobbies. A real hobby? As of this year, I’m a private pilot! Flying airplanes is definitely a fun hobby.

Do you have a favorite TV show?

I don’t watch much TV, but I loved the show “Lost” and was really sad when it ended.

What one word or phrase best describes you?


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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD