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Stars in Her Eyes

Jennifer Lotz PhD ’03
Photo: Larry Canner

Jennifer Lotz PhD ’03 has been excited and curious about space since she was a little girl, searching the sky for contrails from Cape Canaveral launches more than 100 miles from her Tampa home.

She has turned that enthusiasm into an enviable career, using images and data from the most powerful telescopes ever made to study the farthest reaches of the universe and the formation of galaxies.

In February, Lotz was named director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which hosts the operations of the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, as well as the data they collect and the research they make possible.

Back to Baltimore

For Lotz, it’s a return to Baltimore, to Johns Hopkins, and to the institute, known as STScI, which is housed on the Homewood campus. “I’m super excited to be back,” she says. “It’s a thrilling time for the STScI and for astronomy in general.”

Her five-year appointment will also cover development of the Roman Space Telescope, set to launch in 2026, which will have an even wider field of vision, she says, allowing it to gather images of larger areas and with more data.

She also plans to bolster the already strong relationship between STScI and Hopkins. “There’s a lot of collaboration between the physics and astronomy department and STScI,” she says.

After double-majoring in physics and astronomy at Bryn Mawr College, Lotz earned her PhD at Hopkins, studying the formation of dwarf galaxies with Alumni Centennial Professor Rosemary F.G. Wyse in the William H. Miller III Department of Physics and Astronomy and Henry Ferguson, an astronomer on the staff at STScI.

Understanding the distant

Her research, funded with an STScI grant, relied on data gathered by the Hubble Telescope, giving her an appreciation for the tools needed to stretch the boundaries of what we can see and learn.

“One thing with astronomy is everything’s so far away,” she says. “If you really want to understand the universe, you have to build telescopes, you have to build cameras. You have to build these highly sensitive instruments.”

After postdoctoral fellowships working with some of those telescopes, first at UC Santa Cruz, and then at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, Lotz returned to Baltimore in 2010 for her first permanent job, as an associate astronomer at STScI. In 2018, she became director of the International Gemini Observatory, which has telescopes in Hawaii and Chile.

Like the universe itself, the field of astronomy seems to have no limits for Lotz.