3 May 2024

AAS Trustee Jane Rigby Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Joe Biden will present Dr. Jane Rigby with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Friday, 3 May, in a ceremony at the White House in Washington. Rigby, an American Astronomical Society (AAS) member and elected At-Large Trustee, is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the senior project scientist for NASA's JWST mission — the powerful space telescope launched in December 2021.

Dr. Jane RigbyRigby is honored with the Medal of Freedom for her role in the success of the JWST mission, as well as her longtime support of diversity and inclusion in science. In receiving this highest civilian award of the United States, she joins the ranks of distinguished individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." The list of past recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom includes scientist Stephen Hawking and scientist and astronaut (and role model for Rigby) Sally Ride.

Rigby provides scientific leadership for JWST, which has made pioneering discoveries about the secrets of our universe and inspired the world in its first two years of science operations. She 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 frequently shares the progress of JWST science with the public.

"Thousands of people around the world came together to build Webb," said Rigby, referring to JWST. "The engineers who built and deployed Webb were critical to Webb's success, and now thousands of scientists around the world are using Webb to make discovery after discovery." To represent these contributions, in addition to inviting her family to the Medal of Freedom ceremony, Rigby invited her colleague Mike Menzel, JWST lead mission systems engineer at NASA Goddard, and AAS President Dr. Kelsey Johnson.

"I couldn’t be more delighted that Jane is receiving this richly deserved recognition," says Johnson. "She is a luminary in our field, in the true sense of lighting the way for others to follow. I am honored to have Jane as a colleague and a friend."

Rigby is an active researcher, developing new techniques to better understand how galaxies evolve over time and form stars. She has published 160 peer-reviewed publications and has been recognized with awards such as NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, the 2022 LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year from Out to Innovate, and the Fred Kavli Prize Plenary Lecture from the AAS.

"I could not be happier for Dr. Rigby or the field of astronomy," says AAS CEO Kevin Marvel. "This is the first time the Presidential Medal of Freedom has been awarded to an astronomer since its establishment in 1963 by President Kennedy. It is a momentous and special honor and recognizes the tremendous service to our country and career-long dedication that Dr. Rigby has exemplified as a public servant and scientist."

Rigby serves as an elected At-Large Trustee of the AAS and was a founding member of the AAS Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy. She holds a doctorate in Astronomy from the University of Arizona, as well as bachelor degrees in Physics and in Astronomy and Astrophysics from Penn State University.


Susanna Kohler, Editor, AAS Nova
Susanna Kohler
AAS Communications Manager & Press Officer
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Kevin B. Marvel
AAS Executive Officer
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Dr. Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s JWST. Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/Jay Friedlander.

About the AAS

The American Astronomical Society (AAS), established in 1899, is a major international organization of professional astronomers, astronomy educators, and amateur astronomers. Its membership of approximately 8,000 also includes physicists, geologists, engineers, and others whose interests lie within the broad spectrum of subjects now comprising the astronomical sciences. The mission of the AAS is to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe as a diverse and inclusive astronomical community, which it achieves through publishing, meetings, science advocacy, education and outreach, and training and professional development.