Amber Straughn’s Flight From Bee Branch to One of the Biggest Space Missions in History
Growing up on a farm led Dr. Amber Straughn to NASA. That’s not hyperbole or romanticism; she proudly says it herself. Her roots on the family pig and cattle farm in rural Arkansas — a place far from the light pollution of the big city — caused her to do something that our ancestors have been doing since the beginning of time: look up. The Van Buren County sky she saw at night made her wonder what else was out there beyond the farm, beyond this planet.
These days, she spends most of her time 1,000 miles away from “home” in Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., for her job at NASA. But in her mind, she’s been lightyears away since as far back as she can remember — dreaming of distant galaxies, the same ones she now studies in her role as deputy project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope.
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It was in junior high when Straughn (née Holley) decided what she was going to be when she grew up. She was in love with space, not only for the cosmological marvels she saw every night but also because of the impression the Hubble Space Telescope launch left on her in 1990. But she was also interested in genetics and considered following that path into a field like medical research.
“Who knows why, but around [the] seventh, eighth grade, I was like, ‘I need to decide what I want to do with my life,’” Straughn says. She now laughs at the “ridiculous” nature of such a lifelong commitment at this young an age, but this determination and motivation are recurring themes throughout her journey.
The stars have always seemed to find alignment for her, though. She decided on astronomy and directed her course toward the heavens.
Straughn graduated from South Side High School in a class of fewer than 30. And while college is a small step for most, it was a giant leap for her. To that point, no one in her family had a degree, and the institution she would attend — the University of Arkansas — had a larger enrollment than her entire hometown.
It helped that she had already made an impression. A counselor at the high school helped to get her involved in summer internships, which Straughn has in the past referred to as important “stepping stones” that moved her orbital path forward. Then there was Dr. Lin Oliver, a physics professor and advisor at the U of A who’d heard about this starry-eyed girl from Bee Branch. Tuition money was an issue, but her grades and test scores weren’t. At Oliver’s behest, Straughn applied for and was accepted to receive a Chancellor’s Scholarship, fully funding her undergraduate education.
His mentorship carried over into her time on the Hill, and she says he was “instrumental” to her making it out with a diploma. Unlike high school, college didn’t come easy.
At South Side, there were no honors or AP classes during her time. The confident teen felt like she “breezed through” the high school curriculum. She felt smart. So when she signed up for classes at UA, her schedule was littered with honors-level math and science courses. Like calculus, despite her never having taken precalculus, and honors physics, representing the very field she dreamed to make her profession.
“I signed up for all these honors classes, and I very quickly started drowning,” Straughn says. “I had to drop a lot of my honors classes and go into the ‘regular’ physics class. I think I was overwhelmed, and Dr. Oliver really helped me out.”
Straughn rattles through the difficulties she’s experienced just as readily and easily as the triumphs. Such as how, after earning a B.S. in physics, she was rejected at most of the places she applied to for graduate school — the Harvards and MITs of the world. It’s a refreshing honesty beneath a story that, because of the candor, is relatable as much as it is inspiring.
“I’ve been grateful that my life has been filled with a lot of successes in my career, but it’s not all success,” she says. “I think it’s important to talk about failures and missteps, too.”
Her acceptance to Arizona State University proved to be pivotal. There, she was awarded the NASA Harriett Jenkins Predoctoral Fellowship for underrepresented groups in STEM, and earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in physics. It turned out to be the perfect situation. Arizona State, she says, is one of only a few schools that allow students to pursue a Ph.D. in physics while also conducting astrophysics research, which was right up her alley. Even better, her doctoral advisor, Dr. Rogier Windhorst, was affiliated with the very field of astronomy that had piqued her interest as a little girl — cosmology, a broad field that, essentially, pursues the origins of the universe.
Also, Straughn says that there were 10 professors at universities across the country who were working on a project called the James Webb Space Telescope through the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at that time. Windhorst was one of them.
She joined the Goddard team as a postdoc in 2008, and she became the deputy project scientist for communications for the James Webb Space Telescope in 2011.
Her foremost fantasy as a little girl — spurred by a “fundamental feeling” that moved her on dark nights at the farm in Bee Branch — was finally a reality. The universe is full of questions, ones that humanity has asked for eons; Straughn had become an important part of the collective vessel searching for answers.
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The Hubble Space Telescope filled in a number of blanks for scientists around the world after its launch in 1990. Named after the “pioneer” of modern astronomy, Edwin Hubble, the telescope has become one of the most iconic spacecraft of all time. It’s sent breathtaking imagery down to us on Earth for three decades, enough to inspire and educate generations to come. But there was one series of media, in particular, that changed everything.
Dubbed the Hubble Deep Field, it’s an image of deep space through a needle’s eye worth of our night sky. Or, as Stuart Clark wrote in The Big Questions: The Universe, the relative size of a tennis ball at 100 meters away. Hundreds of exposures were combined to produce the solitary photo, which contained 3,000 deep-sky objects. Nearly all of them were galaxies. The universe was much, much bigger than many people realized. And we now had a tool that could study some of the earliest moments of its birth some 13.8 billion years ago.
Straughn was in high school when the image was released. The memory of the moment has remained with her to this day.
“I remember just being stunned by that image of that first deep field,” she says. “It was a stunning image.”
From its launch in 1990 to the release of the Deep Field in 1996, it’s easy to conclude that Hubble has had an important role in shaping Straughn’s life. There are numerous scientists today who would likely say the same thing about their own experiences through the lens of Hubble. But not many of them can also say they worked on Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Straughn can.
For as many answers as it found, Hubble also presented a whole host of new questions, some of which we didn’t even know to ask. JWST might just be the tool to finish what Hubble started.
JWST is a space telescope with much-improved infrared resolution and sensitivity as compared to Hubble — or any other space telescope. Hubble could peer deep into the depths of the cosmos; JWST can go much farther.
For almost 30 years, JWST was an idea. On Christmas Day in 2021, it blasted off into space.
“Telescopes, of course, help us see much beyond what we can see with our eyes,” Straughn says. “And putting telescopes in space has lots of benefits — getting above the atmosphere, allowing us to see the universe in different kinds of light.
“It’s not an overstatement to say that Hubble has revolutionized our understanding of the universe in ways that we never expected, and JWST will be about 100 times more powerful. Even with that simple fact, you can start to think about the advances in astronomy we’re likely to make with this telescope. It was designed to help us answer some of those biggest questions we have in astronomy today.”
Straughn says the beauty of “huge, powerful” telescopes like JWST is the ripple effect to nearly every field of astrophysics — from our solar system to exoplanets to far-away galaxies, and beyond.
But such intricate and elevated science takes time (it has been called the “most sophisticated” and “most difficult” space telescope ever built and sent to space, after all). In NASA’s words:
“The 21-foot, 4-inch (6.5-meter) primary mirror — much too big to fit inside a rocket fairing — is made up of 18 hexagonal, beryllium mirror segments. It had to be folded up for launch and then unfolded in space before each mirror was adjusted — to within nanometers — to form a single mirror surface.”
From its Dec. 25 launch day, every sequential milestone has been successfully reached, but there are yet a few months to go before it is fully functioning. Straughn expects us to see some breathtaking imagery by this summer.
“It’s going to be paradigm-shifting, I’m sure,” Straughn says of JWST. “One of the most exciting things to me, as a scientist, about telescopes like this is that we have all these specific questions we’re going to set out to answer, and I’m sure we’ll answer those. [But] there’s this idea that there are surprises out there in the universe. There are things we haven’t dreamed of yet.”
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For as telescopic as her thoughts often are, Straughn has remained grounded below her successes. Like the readiness to heed her hindrances along the way, she’s also quick to share credit with all to whom it is due. There were the faculty members, such as the aforementioned Drs. Oliver and Windhorst. But, perhaps most important of all, there’s been family.
“Nobody’s able to achieve anything by themselves,” she says.
From her very first moments on Earth, Straughn’s mother, Carolyn, has been her biggest cheerleader. Even when she didn’t fully understand her daughter’s passion.
As a girl who would become a first-generation college student, the adolescent Straughn didn’t know many college graduates, let alone a scientist. She didn’t know what a scientist was, or did, nor did her family. She just knew that she loved the stars and wanted to pursue that. This was good enough for a supportive mother.
“My mom was always telling me, ‘You can do what you want to do, keep working hard,’” Straughn says.
Straughn’s father, Donald, passed away when she was in high school, but not before instilling in her his core values.
“My dad was the epitome model of hard work my whole life,” she says. “He always had multiple jobs. He raised beef cattle, and he had a farm. He raised watermelon. … And he worked on a dairy farm. And he was a mechanic.”
Getting to as far as she’s come is, like he taught, a lot of hard work. But there’s also — another one of her favorite points to drive home — “a lot of help along the way.”
The combination of support and family peak in her husband, Matt. She met him, a Little Rock native, in undergrad, and he’s been beside her for every step through the cosmos.
“In a reverse of our societal norm, he’s followed me all over the country for my education and career,” Straughn says, reiterating that this took him from Arkansas to Arizona to Maryland. All for her. “[He’s the] most important person in my life.”
The significance of her pronoun — she — is also not lost on Straughn. Historically, science has been male-dominated, and women have faced considerable barriers when trying to break into the field. Progress has been made, but, like the JWST floating in space, there is yet more work to be done.
And also like with the telescope, Amber Straughn is playing a big part in it. One of her primary roles as deputy project scientist for communications is to do just that — communicate. Her public speaking engagements have led her to elementary schools and higher education institutions. She’s appeared on TEDx, National Geographic, NOVA, The History Channel, 60 Minutes, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and more.
With every appearance, she serves as an example to girls (and boys) all over the world that, as her mother and father taught, hard work rewards even the most galactic of dreams. No matter who you are, or where you come from. It’s ever-present in the subtext of who she is — a woman at NASA leading a critical mission, who was once just a little girl in Bee Branch gazing at the stars.
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