Steward Observatory alumna Jane Rigby receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

A scientist

Jane Rigby, who graduated with her doctorate in astronomy from the University of Arizona in 2006, received the highest civilian award of the United States in recognition of her work on the James Webb Space Telescope and her advocacy for diversity and inclusion in science.

Britt Griswold and Jay Friedlander, NASA

Jane Rigby, who received her doctoral degree from the University of Arizona Department of Astronomy in 2006, has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Biden

This is the highest civilian award of the United States, and it honors Rigby's role in the success of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, mission and her longtime support of diversity and inclusion in science.

Rigby and her team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center played a major role in the smooth transfer of JWST from commissioning to routine science. Rigby worked on the development of JWST for many years and subsequently led the characterization of JWST's science performance – which now is exceeding expectations and continues to provide pioneering discoveries about the structure and evolution of the cosmos. 

Rigby's research with JWST includes the use of gravitational lensing to study the properties of galaxies in the early universe. This work was initiated in her doctoral studies at the UArizona Steward Observatory and has continued through her leadership of the JWST project TEMPLATES, short for Targeting Extremely Magnified Panchromatic Lensed Arcs and Their Extended Star Formation. TEMPLATES uses high signal-to-noise JWST Near-Infrared Spectrograph, or NIRSpec, and Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, integral field spectroscopy to provide high-resolution spectral images of four lensed galaxies, from which it will be possible to construct detailed images of the targets well beyond the resolution achievable without using lensing.

"It is wonderful when a former student does so well and has already had a big impact on the field," said Rigby's doctoral adviser, Regents Professor of astronomy and planetary sciences George Rieke. "Jane moved into her position with JWST and immediately stole the show with her great competence in handling all the challenges the mission threw at her."

In addition to her Medal of Freedom, Rigby has also been recognized through the NASA Robert H. Goddard Award for Exceptional Achievement for Science, Nature's 10 Ones to Watch in 2022, BBC's 100 women and other awards. She was also the scientist who presented and explained the first JWST results to President Biden. 

"Webb has become a symbol not only of technical excellence and scientific discovery, but also of how much humanity can accomplish when we all work together," Rigby said. "I'm so proud and grateful to lead the amazing Webb team."

A version of this article originally appeared on the College of Science website.