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The astronomical community lost one of its most buoyant and caring individuals when Beth Brown died, unexpectedly, at the age of 39 from a pulmonary embolism.
Beth Brown was born in Roanoke, Virginia where she developed a deep interest in astronomy, science, and science fiction (Star Trek). After graduating as the valedictorian of William Fleming High School's Class of 1987, she attended Howard University, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in astrophysics. Following a year in the graduate physics program at Howard, she entered the graduate program in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Michigan, the first African-American woman in the program. She received her PhD in 1998, working with X-ray observations of elliptical galaxies from the Röntgen Satellite (ROSAT; Joel Bregman was her advisor). She compiled and analyzed the first large complete sample of such galaxies with ROSAT and her papers in this area made an impact in the field.
Following her PhD, Beth Brown held a National Academy of Science & National Research Council Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Subsequently, she became a civil servant at the National Space Science Data Center at GSFC, where she was involved in data archival activities as well as education and outreach, a continuing passion in her life. In 2006, Brown became an Astrophysics Fellow at GSFC, during which time she worked as a visiting Assistant Professor at Howard University, where she taught and worked with students and faculty to improve the teaching observatory. At the time of her death, she was eagerly looking forward to a new position at GSFC as the Assistant Director for Science Communications and Higher Education.
Beth Brown was a joyous individual who loved to work with people, especially in educating them about our remarkable field. Her warmth and openness was a great aid in making accessible explanations of otherwise daunting astrophysical phenomena. She was involved in outreach and education at many levels and throughout her career. She would give planetarium shows, popular science talks for the public, and would speak to local and national news agencies, where she would explain recent NASA science findings. Among other contributions to higher education, she created a course, “Naked Eye Astronomy” at the University of Michigan, which remains the most popular course that the department offers. She was an active member of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), where she was a frequent speaker as well as a mentor to students. Beth Brown was an inspiration to women and minorities in encouraging them to pursue careers in astronomy and physics. One could not find a finer roll model. She will be missed but not forgotten.
Obituary written by: Joel Bregman (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)
BAAS Citation: BAAS, 2011, 43, 004