Astronomer Kelsey Johnson Named Packard Fellow
8, 2007 -- What would you do with $625,000? Kelsey Johnson would search
for the conditions of the beginning of the universe. That’s exactly
what she intends to do with a five-year, $625,000 grant she has won
from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
Johnson, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of
Virginia, recently was named a Packard Fellow, a prestigious
distinction awarded to 20 top young researchers nationwide from a
variety of scientific disciplines.
Johnson is now one of two Packard Fellows in her department and one of
five at U.Va. Only a handful of astronomy departments in the nation
have more than one, and few universities have as many as five.
The grant will allow Johnson to enhance her research on globular star
clusters and the development of the early universe. “Globular star
clusters – regions that are crammed with millions of stars – are the
most ancient objects in the universe,” Johnson said. “They are
essentially fossil records of what happened at the beginning.
"By studying globular star clusters, we can gain understanding of where
the universe came from and, in a sense, where we came from and how we
got here. I try to tease out the secrets of the early universe.”
Johnson plans to use her new funding to conduct preliminary research
that will help her and other U.Va. astronomers lay the groundwork for
observations that soon will become possible with the development of the
Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, a massive $1 billion
international radio telescope currently being constructed in Chile.
ALMA will be the largest and best radio astronomy observatory in the
Competition is keen among astronomers to gain limited observational
time on the array, and it would be a major research opportunity for
U.Va. to be heavily involved with the project.
“ALMA is the biggest thing in earthbound astronomy and we need to be a
part of it,” Johnson said. “To get our [observing] proposals accepted
will require a lot of preliminary research. We will need a great data
set to put us forward as front-runners.”
Gabriel Robins, a professor of computer science and a 1995 Packard
Fellow who served on the U.Va. committee that nominated Johnson for the
fellowship, said the Packard Foundation is interested in ambitious,
far-reaching studies rather than the incremental advances of everyday
science. “They are looking for rising ideas that go out on a limb with
the possibility of failure, but also the possibility that they will
lead to great new discoveries that will change our knowledge to the
“Kelsey’s work is a grand investigation into the fundamental and
beautiful stuff of the universe that grabs you by the hairs of your
curiosity,” he said. “She is addressing fundamental and intriguing,
wide-ranging, cosmic-scale questions into the fabric of the universe.
Her work is about creation in action, the very notion of how everything
came to be in its infinite glory, back to the very point of ‘Let there
“With this fellowship Kelsey joins an elite group of young
researchers,” said John Hawley, chairman of the astronomy department.
“It is testimony to her outstanding past accomplishments and to the
scientific merit of her proposed research. The fellowship demonstrates
that she is not only an outstanding astronomer, but an outstanding
scientist – period – among a broad peer group.”
Steven Majewski, a professor of astronomy who won a Packard Fellowship
in 1997, said the grant provides an extraordinary opportunity for young
investigators to conduct nearly unencumbered research. “The foundation
encourages much more research flexibility than most of the other
funding organizations,” he said. “A Packard fellow can do more creative
and speculative investigations. The foundation seeks people who think
outside the box and can incorporate ideas from other areas and
disciplines. Packard Fellows are the movers and shakers, the people
most likely to conduct distinctive research throughout their careers.”
With Johnson’s award, U.Va.’s astronomy department joins those at the
University of Chicago, Harvard University, Princeton University, the
University of California-Berkley and the California Institute of
Technology as the only astronomy, astrophysics or cosmology programs in
the nation with more than one Packard Fellow.
“It shows the star quality of our department,” Majewski said.
“Kelsey Johnson is one of our brightest young investigators,” added R.
Ariel Gomez, vice president for research and graduate studies, the
U.Va. office that leads each year’s search for potential Packard Fellow
nominees. “Her astronomical breakthroughs and ambitious plans have
earned recognition not only for her, but for U.Va.’s Department of
Earlier this year Johnson won a U.Va. Fund for Excellence in Science and Technology Distinguished Young Investigator grant.
“Johnson’s success in now attaining the prestigious Packard fellowship
is a demonstration of how important it is for the University to support
top junior faculty members in their early research endeavors,” Gomez
Johnson came to U.Va. in 2004 as a Hubble Fellow and joined the
astronomy faculty in 2005. She earned her bachelor’s degree in physics
from Carleton College and Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of
Colorado. For three years prior to coming to U.Va. she was an NSF
Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow with the National Radio
Astronomy Observatory and the University of Wisconsin.
In addition to Johnson, Robins and Majewski, U.Va.’s other Packard
Fellows are Robert Jones (physics, 1996) and Hillary Bart-Smith
(mechanical and aerospace engineering, 2003).