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Stars in her eyes

ASU grad works on NASA’s next space telescope

Growing up in a small Arkansas farming town, Amber Straughn couldn’t help but be captivated by the clear, dark night sky, brimming with stars.

As a NASA research astrophysicist, Straughn spends much of her time peering into that same mesmerizing sea of stars – only now with the world’s best telescopes. Straughn is part of the science team for the JamesWebb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2018 and will enable researchers to learn more than ever before about the universe’s earliest galaxies and how they formed individual stars.

Straughn’s first research project in graduate school at ASU studied galaxy mergers, using data from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, a stunning million-second-long exposure that NASA unveiled in 2004, the deepest portrait of the visible universe ever achieved.

“That was really exciting as a young graduate student, that beautiful image was taken just as I was starting to enter the research phase of my grad-school career,”she says. “Really from a very young age I was captivated by the sky and I was asking questions about what’s up there, why, how does it work.”

Though an astronomer at heart, Straughn chose to study physics because of its versatility. She chose to study at ASU because of the university’s strong reputation in the space sciences; she knew it was a place where physics and astronomy could go hand in hand.

“She’s a fantastic example of a graduate student and researcher,”says Rogier Windhorst, Straughn’s graduate advisor and a Regents’ Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.“She’s very into teaching and outreach as well as research and always willing to do her part. She oozes love for astronomy.”

Straughn started at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt,Md. in 2008 after completing her Ph.D. Her love of teaching serves her well there, as part of her current duties are in public outreach.The work is something she considers vital, not only because it’s important to educate the public about NASA’s discoveries, but also because she wants to show young girls that women have great opportunities at the forefront of scientific research.

Although the launch date for the Webb telescope is nearly six years away, Straughn’s excitement for what the project may discover is palpable.

“I think this is the most exciting project I could be involved in at NASA right now,” Straughn says.“The telescope is basically designed to answer the big questions in astronomy, the questions Hubble can’t answer. And I’m really excited about the surprises that are out there that we haven’t even thought of yet.That’s one of the things that keeps me going in this field.”

Published in ASU Magazine, May 2012.

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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