The eyes of the world were on the unfolding of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a US$10-billion project, which had to deploy a secondary mirror in front of its huge primary mirror to capture and relay precious photos and photons back to Earth.
However, very few knew that at the helm of the project was a female, trail-blazing scientist, Jane Rigby, the telescope’s operations project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Mission Succeeded Beyond Expectations
Despite visions of everything that could go wrong, the telescope deployed its first-ever secondary mirror perfectly, along with all its other components over the course of one month. Rigby then helped lead the work to assess the telescope’s performance. The mission succeeded beyond almost everyone’s expectations. From the first jaw-dropping images released in July to the discoveries of distant galaxies and exoplanet atmospheres, JWST has dominated astronomy headlines throughout 2022. Of the thousands of astronomers who worked on the telescope over decades, Rigby has been a linchpin.
Astronomer instead of cosmonaut
Rigby became an astronomer because she was too short to fly the space shuttle. Growing up in rural Delaware, she watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on television and read about Sally Ride, the US astrophysicist who became an astronaut. Rigby didn’t meet the physical requirements to become a shuttle pilot, so she set her sights on astronomy as a way into space. She bought a second-hand telescope and took it out to the fields at night, gaining hands-on experience of soldering and tinkering with her father, a physics teacher.
As an undergraduate, she went straight into research, working with data from the Keck telescopes in Hawaii. By the time she started graduate school at the University of Arizona in Tucson, she was analysing observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which opened up fresh realms of infrared astronomy.
Yet it was far from clear at the time that JWST would be a success. The project had dragged on since its conception in 1989 and it was continually experiencing schedule delays and rising costs. In 2010, just as all the telescope’s problems were compounding, Rigby turned down two other job offers and joined the project. Part of her job was to work out how to restore the capabilities that had been slashed as JWST’s budget ballooned.
Twelve years later, launch day unfolded for Rigby at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, exactly as her team had practised time after time. She told Nature that she remembers hearing “there’s current on the array” after the multi-million telescope had separated from its rocket and extended its solar arrays to generate power. “It’s hard to imagine how much joy was in that sentence,” she says.
Rigby’s Key Role
Five months of commissioning the telescope started at this stage. Rigby had a key role of measuring and understanding the background light leaking into JWST’s observations as the telescope is not enclosed in a tube, as Hubble is. According to her colleagues, Rigby worked extremely hard every day to drive down uncertainties in how this background light affected the telescope’s data, allowing astronomers to be confident that their measurements are accurate.
On 12 July, Rigby made the good news public in the first paper on scientific results from JWST. That week, she was at the White House to unveil the telescope’s first images with President Joe Biden. Since then, she has been a regular at scientific talks and press conferences about the telescope’s results.
A Gender Activist
Rigby credits her activism in the LGBT+ community with sharpening her leadership in science. As a postdoc in California, she helped to organise voters against a ballot proposition that would have banned same-sex marriage and developing skills such as how to manage and motivate people. One of her role models is Frank Kameny, an astronomer who was fired from the US government in 1957 for homosexuality.
A thread that ties together many LGBT+ people in astronomy, she says, is “there’s a feeling of belonging, that the Universe doesn’t reject me”. Given the risks facing many LGBT+ scientists, that sense of acceptance and safety is crucial, she says. “Certainly for me there was a sense of being drawn to astronomy in part because of my identity, that it was a feeling of being part of the Universe and being part of the bigger story.”
SVITLANA KRAKOVSKA: Voice for Ukraine
An Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change (IPCC) scientist became an international advocate for her country linking Russia’s invasion to climate change, calling it a ‘fossil-fuel war’.
On the morning of Thursday 24 February, Svitlana Krakovska could hear missiles falling in nearby parts of Kyiv while in her apartment she attended a video conference with representatives of 93 other countries. The delegates to the meeting of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were finalising their highly anticipated report on the impacts of the warming world.
“I understood that the IPCC is not a political body and I didn’t want to undermine it,” says Krakovska, who runs the Applied Climatology Laboratory at Kyiv’s Ukrainian Hydro meteorological Institute. She was quoted as saying that it was an “exceptional situation.”
The bombings forced Krakovska to drop out of much of the IPCC meeting as she was making preparations to survive the war with her husband and four children. But after deliberating for days and despite being shy, she decided to speak at the closing plenary. “I was so angry,” she says.
“This human-induced climate change and war against Ukraine have direct connections and the same roots: fossil fuels and humanity’s dependence on them. “The ease of receiving energy from burning coal, oil and gas has changed the balance of power in the human world.” – Krakovska to the IPCC
The response was overwhelming. Delegation after delegation voiced solidarity with Ukraine, including the representative of Russia, Oleg Anisimov, who apologised for the attack. She later received calls and private messages — tens of them every day, she says. Some researchers offered her refuge and scientific positions elsewhere.
Krakovska and her family have not moved from Kyiv where fighting continues to this day and scientists continue to work from bunkers, but the international attention following her IPCC speech has changed her life. A friend persuaded her to accept invitations to speak at major events around the world. That has launched Krakovska into the public eye as a campaigner both for climate action and for Ukraine.
Krakovska did not start her career in climate science. Her first IPCC meeting was only nine years ago in Stockholm in 2013. Born in Kyiv in 1969, she studied meteorology in Leningrad (now St Petersburg, Russia) and became a cloud physicist, working on cloud-seeding experiments to enhance precipitation in the Ukrainian steppes. In her spare time, she climbed every mountain system in the former Soviet Union.
As a postdoc student in the 2000’s, she discovered the incipient field of regional climate modelling and became the first Ukrainian scientist to apply it to her country. She found that many in Ukraine — including some scientists — dismissed the threat of climate change, either saying they didn’t believe it or arguing that it wouldn’t have much impact in a country far from oceans, tropics or polar regions. At the 2013 IPCC meeting, she realised how rigorous science can be rendered understandable to policymakers. And when the scientists spoke, everyone was listening.
Krakovska persuaded other Ukrainian scientists to join the IPCC, including Yakiv Didukh, an ecologist at the M. G. Kholodny Institute of Botany in Kyiv. The experience boosted scientists’ domestic influence and in October, Ukrainian senior ministers approved a strategy for environmental security and adaptation to climate change up to 2030.
After the meeting in February this year, Krakovska left Ukraine to speak at events including the European Geosciences Union in Vienna and the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland. In September, she chaired a virtual meeting on how to rebuild Ukrainian science at the United Nation’s (UN) General Assembly in New York City. She also attended side events at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, saying that the world should emulate Ukrainians’ determination in the war against Russia to fight climate change.
Despite constantly struggling with intermittent electricity, heat and water while missiles have continued to land mere kilometres from her home, Krakovska told Nature that she is thankful for amenities such as a mobile-phone connection, albeit weak. She continues to work on climate-change projections for Ukraine and hopes to convene postponed webinars explaining the IPCC reports. She is spending the fees she earns from international work and speaking engagements on purchasing electricity generators for other Ukrainians.
The Situation in Ukraine’s Scientific Community
Ukraine’s citizens, including scientists, are struggling. Some 131 Ukrainian universities and colleges have been damaged in the war and 22 destroyed. More than 50 research institutions are either damaged or destroyed and laboratory equipment stolen. More than US$10 million worth of kit from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant have also been pilfered by Russian armed troops. Around 1,300 scientists affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine have left the country.
For those scientists in Ukraine who can still do work, Krakovska adds, “it’s very difficult when you need to think about survival”.
“We’re scientists, but we’re humans,” she says. “There’s nobody who stands where she stands who can tell the same story” – Ko Barrett, an IPCC vice-chair and a senior adviser for climate change at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington DC.