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President Joe Biden presents Jane RIgby with presidential medal. Credit: White House

Q&A with Penn State alumna and NASA astrophysicist Jane Rigby

9 May 2024
Jane Rigby
Credit: Michelle Bixby, Penn State

Penn State alumna Jane Rigby was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, by President Joe Biden in May 2024. Rigby is an astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight center and the senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the most powerful telescope ever built.

For her contributions to space science, Rigby was named to the scientific journal Nature’s list of 10 individuals who shaped science in 2022 and to the BBC’s list of 100 inspiring and influential women for 2022 and received NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 2022. She is also an advocate for equity and inclusion in STEM fields.

Rigby is one of three from the Eberly College of Science to have received the 2023 Alumni Fellow Award, the most prestigious award given by the Alumni Association. She graduated from Penn State in 2000 with bachelor’s degrees in astronomy and astrophysics and in physics. While at Penn State, she served as president of the Astronomy Club, co-founded the outreach event AstroFest, was a member of the club field hockey team, and was a Schreyer Honors College student.

We sat down with Rigby to chat about her time at Penn State, her path to NASA, and her work with the JWST.

What do you remember most about your time at Penn State?

Rigby: Being at Penn State was the first time I was in a community of people who were really passionate and able to pursue their passions. I've known since I was a little kid that I was really into astronomy and that I liked knowing how stuff works, which is physics. And so it was so neat to come to Penn State and geek out with other people who cared about this stuff, too, as well as to celebrate the people who were geeking out about stuff that they were passionate about.

What advice do you have for current students?

Rigby: I would say to try things out and get involved. For me, getting started in undergraduate research is the single biggest thing that led to my success in my career. My first year at Penn State, I started doing science in Professor Jane Charlton's lab, and that helped me realize that I liked doing astronomy research, which is a lot different than reading books about astronomy. I think it's so important to find out if you like doing research. Because if you don't, that gives you more time to go figure out what you do like.

How did you become interested in astronomy?

Rigby: I’ve been interested in astronomy forever. I saw Cosmos on TV—the original with Carl Sagan on PBS—and that blew my little preschooler mind. Just the idea that there was all this stuff that I had never thought about that was out there. My parents are retired public school teachers, so education was super important for my family. Not in a pressuring way, but in a “Hey, isn't it cool to learn stuff?” way.

I ended up looking at colleges in the northeast, because I didn't want to be too far from my family. I visited a bunch of schools, but what I was really looking for, and the thing that brought me to Penn State, was how active the undergraduates were in research. I was doing research my second semester at Penn State, and the mentoring was wonderful. At some level it felt like being thrown in the deep end, but with support; it felt like people believed in me and it was going to be okay. And it was really fun.

Can you tell us more about your path to NASA?

Rigby: I first want to say that it can be very intimidating to hear about people's career paths because it sounds so planned and high achieving. You often don’t see the wrong turns, the pruned branches, or the decision people made for personal reasons and not because of career. It looks so orderly when you look back on it, but it feels messy at the time.

After Penn State, I went to University of Arizona for graduate school, because they have big telescopes, and I wanted to get good at big telescopes. I wanted to get the light from space myself. I also met my partner there, who is also an astronomy geek. Then I was a Carnegie Fellow at the Spitzer Fellow at the Carnegie observatories, which is a small research institution in Pasadena, California, where Edwin Hubble discovered the universe is expanding.

As I was interviewing for university faculty jobs, I was recruited to join the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to work as a deputy project scientist for operations for JWST. I didn't know what those words meant together, so I ended up visiting mostly to understand the job. And I thought, “making the telescope work, making sure it’s working right for users, I have opinions about that.” Also, my wife and I wanted to move to Washington DC for family reasons, so I took the job at NASA Goddard in 2010 and have been there ever since.

Can you tell us more about what you do at NASA?

Rigby: I do a couple of different things at NASA. I do research; I take data from space, and I scratch my head and try to figure out what it means. And I lead a team of a small group of folks who are doing the same. That's super fun.

I am also the senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is NASA's new observatory that is 100 times more powerful than any other previous telescopes. It’s my responsibility to make sure that we maximize the scientific productivity of this revolutionary telescope. This year, we asked for great ideas for what to do with a telescope, and we got nine times more proposals than there is time on the telescope. It's a scarce resource.   We want to empower scientists from all over the world to do the best science, then doing that science as well and as efficiently as we can.

Can you elaborate on the goals of JWST?

Rigby: JWST was sold as a way to see a time when galaxies were young. Telescopes are powerful, and the speed of light is not that fast, so we can see light from galaxies that are so far away that their light has been traveling through space for most of the age of the universe. We can use telescopes like time machines and see some of the earliest galaxies, as they looked several hundred million years after the Big Bang. In the first year of operations, we have seen jaw-droppingly results from very distant galaxies in beautiful high definition. That can tell us what they are made of and how they evolved.

JWST actually has four scientific pillars that encompass a lot of modern astronomy. The first, which we just talked about, is to understand galaxy formation, especially of those early galaxies. The second is to understand how those galaxies evolved over the 13.7-billion-year history of the universe. How do you go from the early, messy first galaxies to the mature, elegant galaxies like our Milky Way? The third goal was to understand how solar systems form, and the fourth is to better understand planets, both within our solar system and outside our solar system, which we now call exoplanets. In the first year of science operations, we have hit homeruns on all four of those science goals. But we’re also open to proposals that are innovative – ideas that hadn’t thought of when the telescope was being designed.

You have done a lot of work to promote inclusivity and equity in STEM fields. Can you comment on how important that is to you, especially in physics and astronomy, and how this area has changed over the course of your career?

Rigby: It’s important to articulate the business case: Inclusive organizations are more successful and productive. We want the best minds, and the best minds don't come in one type of one type of package. But there also feels like a moral imperative, and it’s what feels right. At some level, we are all citizens of the universe. Before modern technology, everybody had access to the sky and could look up at night and see the Milky Way. It's part of our heritage as human beings, and that’s not something that should be closed off.

The atmosphere in STEM fields has changed a lot, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to get to real inclusivity in physics and astronomy. As a cis white, queer person, I used to have to fight a lot to have space.  Now I feel like I don't need to fight anymore to have a spot on the ship. That makes me want to double down and say, great, how do we lower some more boarding ladders? How do we make space for others?

I also think there's been a huge change and awareness about the role of unconscious biases in recent years. I’m interested in how we change our practices to mitigate this bias. Now the proposal review process for both the Hubble and Webb telescopes is dual anonymous, so the panel of experts reviewing the proposals doesn’t know who wrote them and the people who wrote them don’t know who is evaluating. The idea is to focus on the science and not unconsciously favor a famous person at a big university over someone with a bright idea at a smaller school. This is one example of ways to make things fairer and also lower the barriers to and broaden participation.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Hero image credit: The White House