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Imagine the Universe!

Profile: Dr. Jennifer Scott

Do you like watching television? It might help you become a scientist some day -- with a lot of work, of course!

Many space scientists first got the idea for their careers watching Star Trek as kids. Jennifer Scott loved watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos. "My mom claims it's because I got to stay up late! But I was really fascinated by the images and the ideas in astronomy and astrophysics."


Jennifer was born in Pittsburgh, PA but moved to Chattanooga, TN when she was six, where she attended school. Science was among the many different subjects in school that she liked. Jennifer graduated from Chattanooga's Hixson High School. But Sagan's influence held when she got to college and had to choose a major. Jennifer decided on physics, with an eye toward pursuing astronomy down the road. Astronomers need a good foundation in physics. Plus she knew physics would be challenging, and she wanted a good challenge!

As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jennifer participated in the National Science Foundation's "Research Experience for Undergraduates" program, at both the University of Wyoming's Department of Physics & Astronomy and at Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket, MA. These were her first tastes of scientific research. After graduating from UNC with a BS in physics, she moved to Tucson, Arizona to attend the University of Arizona, where she earned a PhD in astronomy.

Her first postdoctoral work was done at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD, where they manage all the data from the Hubble Space Telescope. At STScI, Jennifer worked on research projects in collaboration with other scientists. After a couple of years, Jennifer came to Goddard for a second postdoc, on a fellowship from the National Research Council.

Becoming a Scientist

Jennifer has a great interest in the spectra of quasars (very distant, very active nuclei of galaxies), which began when she was an undergraduate. "During the summer I spent in Wyoming, I went to a scientific meeting at Grand Teton National Park where everyone kept using the term 'Lyman alpha forest''. I had no idea what it meant!"

Now she does! 'Lyman alpha' refers to the energy required to excite an electron in a hydrogen atom from its lowest energy state to the next energy state, and there are many higher states for the electron to go to. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and clouds (really more of a cosmic web) of hydrogen gas are scattered throughout the universe. Light from distant objects behind the clouds has the right energies to excite hydrogen atoms to different higher energy states. Therefore the clouds block (absorb) some of the light reaching us from those objects. The clouds thereby create a spectral "forest", so called because they produce a variety of absorption lines close together in the object's spectrum. Astronomers refer to this as the 'Lyman alpha forest'. (More on absorption and emission lines in "What is this image?" section.)

Jennifer's PhD thesis work involved measuring the ultraviolet background radiation over cosmic time, from the early universe to the present day universe. This radiation is important in governing the formation of galaxies over time. For these measurements she used the spectra of quasars from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and from ground-based telescopes in Arizona: the Multiple Mirror Telescope and the Bok Telescope on Kitt Peak. The data consisted of the spectral absorption lines from intergalactic material along the path between us and the quasars, i.e. the Lyman alpha forest. She also did some mathematical modeling of those spectra using a computer code she wrote.

A speaker at that Wyoming meeting that Jennifer attended as an undergraduate later became one of her two PhD thesis advisers. Both advisers nominated her for the 2005 Trumpler Award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (awarded for best recent PhD thesis) -- which she won! She is very honored and pleased.

Jennifer continues to be amazed that we can map out the universe in such detail using just measurements of the absorption of light by the intergalactic medium. Better understanding of the interplay between galaxies, quasars, and their environments is her goal. At Goddard, she works on a variety of projects involving active galaxies and the intergalactic medium. Active galaxies are otherwise typical galaxies that have a variable and very bright center, believed to be caused by supermassive black holes.

Using spectra from the HST, FUSE, and Chandra missions, Jennifer studies outflowing material from active galaxies. She also leads a project to correlate spectral absorption features in quasars that have galaxies in the foreground; in this case the 'forest' is caused by the galaxy rather than a hydrogen cloud. To extend her thesis work, Jennifer also plans to work on improved models and methods of analysis on the ultraviolet background radiation of the universe. She enjoys using absorption features in these different contexts. And she likes using lots of different types of data to create a clearer picture of the science.

Typical Workday

Kitt Peak
CKitt Peak

Like most scientists today, Jennifer spends a lot of time at the computer. She writes and then runs computer codes to analyze data collected from telescopes all over the world - and in space! She writes papers and keeps in email contact with scientists all over the globe. To learn what other scientists in her field are up to, she spends time talking with colleagues at Goddard.

On less typical days, Jennifer travels to meetings all over the world to talk with other scientists. Her work has taken her to many places in the U.S., and to Canada, Mexico, France, and Israel. At these meetings, she may give a talk or present a poster on her recent results, and she listens to presentations by other astronomers. There is a lot of time for socializing too - and sometimes the fun outings that go along with the meetings.

Jennifer has had the exciting opportunity to actually collect astronomical data on huge observatory telescopes. She has been on Kitt Peak in Arizona and Las Campanas in Chile.

Other Interests

With so much time spent sitting at her desk at work, Jennifer prefers to be active in her free time. Hiking, swimming, and running are some of her favorite activities. And she likes to ride her bicycle with her husband, a near-professional level cyclist. Gardening and reading also keep her busy.

What's Best About Working in Science?

Thinking and communicating about big questions is fascinating. Jennifer also loves traveling to meetings and gathering with colleagues and friends. Observing at the telescope is a lot of fun, too. But she sometimes finds it hard to stay awake all night for several nights. It's worth the effort: "The views are often spectacular!"

Questions and Answers

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I would probably be a teacher - and I will be a professor soon - at Towson University (in Maryland), or I would work in government. I would want to do some kind of public service, something I think it's important for scientists to do.

If you could invite three people from throughout history to your house for dinner, who would you invite and why?

Galileo Gallilei

It's hard to choose just three! As a scientist, I'd want to talk with Marie Curie and find out how she came up with her ideas about radioactivity and what being a scientist was like for her.

I'd also love to talk with Galileo or Copernicus. I am fascinated by how they managed to break out of the mold of the thinking of their time to propose ideas that were so revolutionary then and which we take for granted now!

As an American, I'd love to talk with Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. because they all seem like very brave, intelligent, thoughtful, and eloquent men. I wonder what they would think about America today.

Who was your favorite teacher? What were they like and how did they influence your life?

I had many great teachers, but two that come to mind as lasting influences are my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Foster, and my high school calculus teacher, Mrs. Gurley. Mrs. Foster instilled in me a love of reading, and she really helped me learn to write well. This is a skill I use all the time! Mrs. Gurley challenged us every day, and intimidated us too, even though we all towered over her as high school seniors! She taught me to visualize mathematics in ways I still find very helpful.

What do you think is the most important technological advance that has occurred in your lifetime?

The widespread use of personal computers.

Do you have a family? A dog? A fish? A camel?

Max and Zinger

My husband, Craig, is a mathematician. Our romantic story is that we met in a college physics lab!

We have two cats, Max (the gray one) and Zinger (the white one). They are a handful! Max is nimble and graceful and a little skittish. Zinger is a monster. He would eat all day if you let him, and he gets into trouble a lot. But he's really cute, so we let him stick around!

What is the one big dream you have, or the one thing that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?

I want to inspire students in the same way I was inspired and challenged as a student. I hope to make real, lasting contributions to understanding the universe. I hope to have a happy and healthy family and to contribute to my community. Oh - and traveling to the moon would be pretty cool, too!

Publication Date: August, 2005