Profiles of Astronomers: Cliff Johnson

Who are you and where are you from?

My name is Cliff Johnson and I grew up on Hannibal, Missouri — boyhood home of Mark Twain, located on the majestic Mississippi River.

How did you become interested in Astronomy?

In middle school, I once tried to pick out constellations on a particularly clear night, but couldn’t find any I recognized.  I picked up some books from the library to help answer my questions and started learning the basics of backyard astronomy.  After receiving a telescope as a gift, my interest quickly grew as I wanted to learn more about the nebulae and stars I was seeing.  When combined with my knack for math and science, my path to becoming an astronomer was set!

If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?

I study star clusters and star formation in the local universe — my PhD work is focused on our nearby galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.  I am part of a research team that uses the Hubble Space Telescope to take detailed images (like this one) of the stars that make up Andromeda.  Using these data, we hope to learn about how the galaxy has grown and changed over time, how clouds of gas and dust transform and collapse to form stars, as well as gain a better understanding for how stars evolve throughout their lifetimes.

What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

That we haven’t figured everything out yet!  It’s thrilling to work in a field where new discoveries are made every day.  For example, in the last few weeks astronomers have discovered a dozen new dwarf galaxies that are orbiting in our local neighborhood (galactically speaking).  What?!?!  How cool is that, right?  Knowing that there is always the potential to make a discovery that will change how we think about the Universe.  Yeah — that gets me out of bed in the morning.

What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

Still space science related, but I think the idea of sending a submarine to Jupiter’s moon Europa to explore its subsurface ocean would be amazing.  I mean, landing a probe on a comet and driving a rover around on Mars is cool and all, but a submarine swimming around in a ocean on alien world?  Wow, right?

What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

Watching soccer!  I’m a huge Seattle Sounders fan and recently acquired an addiction to watching English Premier League matches.  Beyond spectating, I still play occasionally for our UW Astronomy intramural team, the Pulsar Kicks.

Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

I’m a huge fan of citizen science — especially projects run by the Zooniverse.  I was fortunate enough to work on a project called The Andromeda Project, where 30,000 people helped me build an amazing catalog of star clusters in Andromeda that I’m using as the basis for my PhD.  If you have a free moment and want to help out scientists on their research (maybe instead of playing games on your phone), log in and help out!


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