Dr. Beth A. Brown: NASA Astrophysicist

NASA Astrophysicist

Beth Brown
Dr. Beth A. Brown, NASA Astrophysicist who explored the high-energy universe. She worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and also taught at Howard University. NASA

The success of NASA throughout its history is due to the work of many scientists and technical experts who contributed to the many successes of the agency. Dr. Beth A. Brown was one of those people, an astrophysicist who dreamed of studying the stars from early childhood. Her legacy as the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Michigan. 

Early Life

Dr. Beth Brown was born in Roanoke, VA on July 15, 1969, and had an interest in science from an early age.

She grew up with her parents, younger brother, and an older cousin. Beth often talked about how she liked science because she was always curious about how something worked and why something existed. She participated in science fairs in elementary school and junior high, but although space fascinated her, she chose projects that had nothing to do with astronomy.

Dr. Brown grew up watching Star TrekStar Wars, and other shows and movies about space. In fact, she often talked about how much Star Trek influenced her interest in space. She often cited seeing the Ring Nebula through a telescope when she was in high school as the impetus for her decision to pursue astronomy as a career. She was also interested in being an astronaut.

Dr. Brown's College Years

She attended Howard University, where she graduated summa cum laude, receiving a BS in astrophysics in 1991, and remained there for another year in the physics graduate program.

Although she had been more a physics major than an astronomy major, she decided to pursue astronomy as a career because it piqued her interest. 

Because of D.C.'s close proximity to NASA, Brown was able to do a couple of summer internships at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where she gained research experience.

One of her professors made her look into what it takes to become an astronaut and what it is like to be in space. She discovered that her near-sighted vision would hurt her chances of being an astronaut and that being in cramped quarters wasn't very appealing.

Brown next entered the doctoral program at the University of Michigan's Department of Astronomy. She taught several labs, co-created a short course on astronomy, spent time observing at the Kitt Peak National Observatory (in Arizona), presented at several conferences, and spent time working at a science museum that also had a planetarium. Dr. Brown received her MS in Astronomy in 1994, then went on to finish her thesis (on the subject of elliptical galaxies). On December 20, 1998, she received her Ph.D., the first African-American woman to obtain a doctorate in astronomy from the department.

Post-graduate Work 

Dr. Brown returned to Goddard as a National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council post-doctoral research associate. In that position, she continued her thesis work on x-ray emission from galaxies. When that ended, she was hired directly by Goddard to work as an astrophysicist. Her main area of research was on the environment of elliptical galaxies, many of which shine brightly in the x-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

This means there is very hot (about 10 million degrees) material in these galaxies. It could be energized by supernova explosions or possibly even the action of supermassive black holes. Dr. Brown used data from the ROSAT X-ray satellite and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory to trace activity in these objects.

She loved to do things involving educational outreach. One of her best-known outreach projects was the Multiwavelength Milky Way project — an effort to make data on our home galaxy accessible to educators, students, and the general public by showing it in as many wavelengths as possible. Her last posting at Goddard was as assistant director for science communications and higher education in the Science and Exploration Directorate at GSFC.

Dr. Brown constantly worked to elevate the position of women and girls in science, particular females of color.

She was a member of the National Society of Black Physicists, and often mentored younger members. 

Dr. Brown worked at NASA until her death from a pulmonary embolism in 2008 and is remembered as one of the pioneering scientists in astrophysics at the agency. 

Facts About Dr. Beth A. Brown

  • Birth: July 15, 1969. 
  • Bachelor's Degree from Howard University
  • Ph.D. from University of Michigan
  • Death: October 5, 2008
  • Area of expertise: astrophysics
  • Accomplishments: Compiled first large catalog of elliptical galaxies in ROSAT data, first African-American woman to gain a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Univ. of Michigan.
  • Interesting Fact: Taught a course called "Naked Eye Astronomy" at Michigan.
  • Book: X-ray Emission in Early-type Galaxies Surveyed by ROSAT. 

Sources

“Astrophysicist Beth Brown Born.” African American Registry, aaregistry.org/story/astrophysicist-beth-brown-born/.

“Beth A. Brown (1969 - 2008).” Careers in Astronomy | American Astronomical Society, aas.org/obituaries/beth-brown-1969-2008.

NASA, NASA, attic.gsfc.nasa.gov/wia2009/Dr_Beth_Brown_tribute.html.

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.