A Journey with Dr. Jane Rigby, Senior NASA JWST Project Scientist

The discussion moderators of the first ISSI Breakthrough Workshop co-organized by Jane Rigby (4th person from left).
The discussion moderators of the first ISSI Breakthrough Workshop co-organized by Jane Rigby (4th person from left).

Odyssey through space and time

Already at the age of 5, Jane Rigby—now Senior NASA JWST Project Scientist and one of the conveners of the first ISSI Breakthrough Workshop—got hooked by a TV show about the cosmos. Growing up in a small town, she says, makes people go search for things to do. For Jane, this was the public library of her town. In this library, she found books that fulfilled her curiosity about what’s beyond her little town, and also beyond our planet. Four decades later, Jane is presenting the first JWST images to the President of the United States, Joe Biden, at the White House.

Trials and Triumphs

Given her early fascination with space, her career path seemed quite like a straight line, but there were definitely moments that changed its direction. Overseeing submission proposals for using the world’s sharpest lenses on the universe, she acknowledges the importance to withstand academic rejection. Space scientists putting their greatest ideas out there to be evaluated is making people vulnerable to some degree. Every year there are great ideas submitted worth to fill nine years of telescope usage, Jane says. That many ideas—no matter how great they are—simply cannot be accommodated. So, great ideas must be rejected frequently.

Pioneering Diversity and Inclusion

Having attended many meetings as the only woman in the room, Jane has seen significant development towards a more gender-diverse and welcoming work environment. She says that a major factor that has changed, and contributed to continue this change, is that more scientists today are challenging bullying in the work place and advocating for change more readily. The readiness to speak up not only counteracts widespread harassment directly, but also helps to prevent it as the problem gets more widely acknowledged and understood.

A Collaborative Endeavour

Jane appreciates the ISSI workshop not only because they assembled a diverse group of researchers in the welcoming environment at ISSI, but also because it allows her and her peers to take a step back and contemplate what has been learned. The JWST telescope is about 100 times more sensitive than the best performing telescopes before, which critically also leads to much, much faster observations: „What used to take a year before, can now be done in one hour, creating new possibilities. And these new possibilities are approached with so much joy.“ Jane says enthusiastically and further elaborates that it feels like watching a firework show, where fascinating discoveries are made in all parts of the field at the moment.

At ISSI, Jane says, they brought a broad team of experts together to take a step back and have a coordinated look at all these fireworks and and find the biggest, overarching themes. She further elaborates: „The excitement of the workshop participants is palpable, and we can’t help to discuss about what’s next.“

By having a more complete view on the recent insights, it becomes clear that there are some key advances in our understanding of the first Billion years in the Universe. Surprisingly, thousands of galaxies seemed to have formed already that early on. They formed fast, converted gas into stars very efficiently, and a significant amount of these early galaxies host massive black holes. „We see a fast, organised growth of galaxies that are brighter and have appeared earlier than what we have thought“, Jane says with similarly bright eyes underscoring her excitement.

Another New Era of Discovery

As technology evolves, so does our understanding of the cosmos. From Galileo and the discovery of the Jovian planetary system—a little „solar system“ within a solar system—Jane says it is how space science uses to evolve. However, back in Galileo’s days, and even a few years back, it was unlike harder to get access to the latest data. Today, JWST data is openly available, latest one year after they have been recorded. This caused quite a surprise when Jane one day came back to the house after mowing the lawn and looked at her phone just to find the data she just collected being already used and shared by space enthusiasts online.

Sharing the Wonder of Space

Jane is all in when it comes to sharing her knowledge about our universe, such as directly with the president of the United States or in plenary lectures with American Astronomical Society. Here in Bern, Jane takes on the role as moderator of the panel discussion at the ‚ISSI Cosmic Beginnings’ event. She takes this opportunity to share the excitement of the space science community with the public and promote the humanity of the recent discoveries: „The JWST telescope is a true human endeavour, crossing geographic and other boundaries, and something inherently good.“



Re-watch the ISSI ‘Cosmic Beginnings’ lectures and panel discussion here.

Panel discussion moderated by Jane Rigby at the ISSI ‚Cosmic Beginnings‘ event.
Panel discussion moderated by Jane Rigby at the ISSI ‚Cosmic Beginnings‘ event.