Examining the Sources
From the study of the culture of astronomy to the design of interactive analysis tools.
To fully understand the makeup of any field, it’s necessary to examine the culture that drives it. That’s what Lauren Chambers did as a double major at Yale University. She balanced astrophysics and African American studies to study the intersections of gender and race in the field, while also diving deep into the data. Here, Chambers shares how she’s applied that work at the institute, where she works as a research and instrument analyst to support the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
Why did you choose to pursue astrophysics?
My mom has worked at NASA Langley Research Center for more than 35 years. Although it wasn’t assumed I’d go into science, physics was my favorite subject in high school. I had a great teacher who made the projects feel both exciting and doable—and shared his own research about black holes. Although I initially pursued only astrophysics, as a junior I took an introduction to African American history. I left feeling frustration mixed with curiosity, and declared a double major. It’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. I was able to examine the sciences as cultural institutions made up of people with biases and beliefs that affect which projects are done, as well as research how race and gender influence the field of astronomy.
How has this research influenced your work at STScI?
I was invited to be a speaker at the .Astronomy conference held at the institute in September 2018. The presentation was based on my thesis. I presented it a few times at Yale, but primarily to student audiences. This was exciting, because this was for the scientific audience it is designed to reach, and it was received very well. There were a lot of good questions and feedback. It helped me realize there’s a strong desire for work like this to be done. The community wants to learn about itself, how to change, what to consider, which makes me want to continue this work. I’ve begun to do that in part by joining Invision, a committee at the institute that upholds an inclusive environment for our diverse staff, to help facilitate meaningful discussions. This work empowers every employee to build communities, which will lead to new ideas and stronger partnerships.
Let’s back up. How did you find a career at STScI?
I learned about the institute at an American Astronomical Society conference. I didn’t immediately plan to pursue graduate school and one of my professors, who was also attending, recommended I look into open positions at the institute. Soon after, I applied and was hired as a research and instrument analyst. I support JWST by writing software tools and participating in the observatory’s commissioning rehearsals.
What else have you contributed so far?
I developed the Multi-Application Guiding Interface for Commissioning (MAGIC!) tool with a colleague. This graphical user interface allows members of the guiding team to simulate guiding images and generate the files needed during commissioning. I’ve also contributed to the development of the Multi-Instrument Ramp Generator (MIRAGE) tool for the simulation of Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), and Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) data, as well as designed a prototype for the JWST Quicklook Application’s web interface.
Why do you enjoy working at the institute?
Within the group of research analysts, there are a lot of kind and fun people. We go to lunch, get coffee. Within the telescopes branch, the senior folks are also supportive of people who are new. I’ve been encouraged to ask questions since I got here, which facilitates growing and understanding. Everyone at the institute has been very welcoming from the very beginning.
Article updated March 2019.