Aps Careers | Physicist Profile

Beth Brown


Why physics?

Endless curiosity

Not long after children learn to speak, they usually begin to ask tons of questions: What’s that? Why? Are we there yet?

Questions like these (except maybe the last one) reflect a healthy and natural curiosity about the world. And while some outgrow this phase, Beth Brown didn’t. In her search for answers about why things existed and how they worked, Beth was drawn to science at a young age.

A glimpse into space

While she was in high school, Beth visited an observatory for a school assignment. There, she looked through a telescope and saw the Ring Nebula. It was all she needed to get hooked on astronomy.

"I thought that was just so cool—to know that I was looking at something that was so unfathomable in terms of distance," Beth said.

Afterwards, Beth decided to pursue physics and astronomy at Howard University in Washington, DC. Her dream was to become an astronaut.

“Space fascinated me. I was into anything that had to do with space. [So] I thought that actually being out in space would be the coolest thing possible.”


During her undergraduate years, Beth participated in two internships at NASA, picking up research experience and learning more about the science of the stars.

She also had a professor who, upon hearing she wanted to be an astronaut, encouraged her to look at what it takes to become one. As Beth researched, she found her near-sighted vision and dislike of cramped spaces didn’t go well with the job’s requirements. But Beth was undeterred from still pursuing a career in astronomy.

Beth graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in astrophysics. She went on to grad school at the University of Michigan, becoming the first African-American female to get a PhD in astronomy there.

Using physics

Back to NASA

After graduating, Beth returned to NASA for a post-doc position and ended up staying as a full-time employee.

As an astrophysicist at NASA, Beth collected data on the environment of elliptical galaxies. Elliptical galaxies are thought to be the result of two smaller galaxies merging, and each is believed to contain a supermassive black hole in its center.

Elliptical galaxies also shine brightly in the X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum. This means they contain incredibly hot material — 10 million degrees hot! So Beth used NASA’s ROSAT X-ray satellite and Chandra X-ray observatory to also collect data on these galaxies.

Look up

While she was at the University of Michigan, Beth gave tours at the local planetarium and even developed a one-credit course in naked-eye astronomy — a chance for students with no astronomy experience to learn without needing a telescope. The course was very popular and still exists today.

At NASA, Beth grabbed onto similar opportunities to share astronomy with the public. She represented NASA in television interviews, developed a website for the public on the Milky Way, and participated in the NASA Administrator's Fellowship Project (NAFP). NAFP let Beth return to Howard University to teach and develop an introductory astronomy course.

"[I want others to] have a connection to the physical universe we live in," she said. "Our ancestors used to depend on looking up at the night sky, but we don't look up anymore. I want them to know there are fascinating things in the night sky and understand what they see. I want to translate my wonder of the night sky to others."

Helping others reach for the stars

In addition to educating the public, Beth was passionate about helping other minorities and women succeed in the field of physics. She served in leadership roles with the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) and the National Conference of Black Physics Students (NCBPS).

When asked what she felt her greatest achievement was, Beth simply replied, “convincing a young woman not to give up on her dreams of becoming a scientist, because someone had told her she couldn’t [do it].”

Beth passed away in 2008, but her work and legacy live on in the lives she touched and the many students she inspired. Beth was noted for her warmth and down-to-earth approachability, never letting academic titles or the complexity of her work deter her from engaging with others.

“She lit up the room with her wonderful smile; she made everyone in her presence feel that they were important,” says friend and NASA colleague Dr. Howard Kea.

Advice for students

Find solid role models

When Beth was at Howard University, she found herself surrounded by great mentors and role models.

That all changed, however, when she went to get her PhD. At the University of Michigan, she often found herself isolated and out of place as the “only brown face in the crowd.” She was fortunate enough, however, to be able to turn to her previous mentors from Howard and NCBPS for support.

Keep things balanced

In addition to her involvement in research and outreach, Beth surrounded herself with supportive friends and family. This allowed her to keep her life balanced, never letting the stress of work get the best of her. She felt this life balance is important for all students in their lives and academic work.

It’s never too late

When Beth took physics in high school, she quit early on because she felt she “wasn’t learning anything.” But the pursuit of her passions led her back to physics in college.

“This just goes to show that you can still do whatever you want, even if you didn't get all the right courses in high school,” Beth said.

To learn more about Dr. Beth Brown, view a Howard University documentary on her life and work here:
Dr. Beth Brown, Part I & Part II

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