Pioneering Leicester researcher ready for ‘mind-blowing’ space images

A five-year break in China, a worldwide pandemic, and delays to the most complex space telescope ever built: none of these were enough to stop Naomi Rowe-Gurney breaking new ground to complete her PhD at Leicester and land a dream job with NASA.

Dr Rowe-Gurney, who studied the atmospheres of what she describes as the Solar System’s ‘strange’ ice giants, Neptune and Uranus, crossed the stage in July as one of almost 7,000 Leicester students to collect their award.

But for Naomi – who completed her research thesis in 2021 and had to wait nine months to don her robes – the moment was made all the more special for four women sat in the audience at De Montfort Hall.

“I managed to get four tickets for my mum, my auntie, my cousin and my gran to sit in the audience and watch,” she says. “That was really amazing for me because they are all strong Black women who were the inspiration for getting me through my PhD and even for doing it in the first place. I’ve got everything to thank them for.”

Naomi celebrates collecting her PhD with (L-R) auntie Deborah, cousin Lyssa, granny Lorna, and mum Diana.

Raised in Newbury, Berskhire – on Watership Down, made famous by the fantasy novel – Naomi is also a pioneer as the first Black woman to receive a PhD from Leicester’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

Naomi first came to Leicester in 2008 to study Physics with Astrophysics MPhys, and after graduating put her skills to work as a science teacher in China.

“I didn’t think that I was going to be pursuing a PhD because I only got a 2:1. I thought I hadn’t done well enough. But after I started to look into it, I thought ‘I can do this’.”

While Naomi was away, Leicester’s planetary sciences team was bolstered by the arrival of Dr (now Professor) Leigh Fletcher, whose research examines the distant outer planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

After five years of teaching, Naomi had a research itch that she needed to scratch.

She continues: “I knew I wanted to do something with atmospheric science, but I also loved astronomy, and it just so happened that Leigh had joined as one of the best planetary atmosphere experts in the country. We talked, and I thought ‘let’s do this!’.”

With support from the European Research Council-funded GIANTCLIMES programme, Naomi initially proposed to use the pioneering James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to study the infrared signatures of the icy planets.

But she was dealt blow after blow when the project was pushed back countless times. With the telescope firmly stuck on the ground, Naomi thought she had no way of answering her research question – until a small satellite trailing the Earth came to the rescue.

“My PhD was meant to be using JWST data but – thank god – we found some Spitzer data that I could look at,” she explains.

The Spitzer Space Telescope, launched by NASA in 2003, used a small, less-than-a-metre mirror to collect infrared light from targets in the night sky. While less capable than the JWST, Naomi had a starting point for her research.

“The whole PhD was looking at Spitzer data, and trying to see which questions we couldn’t answer: to prepare for JWST to come along.

“Because Spitzer was so small, you could only see a point of light and a single spectrum. We can use that to see what an object is made of and what temperature it is, but with JWST, we’re going to see entire photos where every pixel contains a spectrum for us to look at.

“It’s going to be mind-blowing.”

And while mission delays had made life difficult during her PhD, the timing of JWST’s launch into space worked perfectly for the next giant leap in Naomi’s research career.

Naomi – now Dr Rowe-Gurney – will be a step closer to observations as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center close to Washington DC. Her role serves as a crucial connection between the telescope’s raw data and an international community of space scientists.

Moving to the States shortly after completing her PhD, Naomi was immediately on board with her new team, made up of experts supporting research both across our Solar System and beyond, into the furthest reaches of the observable universe.

JWST was finally launched on Christmas Day 2021 from Kourou in French Guiana.

“COVID-19 protocols meant that we all had to watch the launch from home. I was wearing my pyjamas and my Santa hat, with my dog and my wife,” she laughs.

“But that didn’t make it any less amazing. My whole team were all talking to each other by text and sending each other photos as everything happened.”

And with the huge telescope now operational around 1.5 million kilometres from home, experts like Naomi can now get to work analysing the data being beamed back to Earth.

She continues: “It’s pretty amazing! I have data on my laptop right now which is classified, which means I can’t share it at all. You have to be very careful not to leak anything: it’s like not giving any spoilers away to your friend’s favourite TV show.

“In my role I’m helping people who have been allocated time no the telescope for programmes in this first year of operation. That means I’m constantly working with Leigh and people like Henrik Melin and Mike Roman as part of the whole Leicester group, so I’m never going to be cut off from Leicester.

“This opportunity [to work for NASA] came at a perfect time, and so I have a lot to thank Leicester for.”

Dr Rowe-Gurney's NASA role sees her supporting studies of targets across our Solar System using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).