Office of University Communications & Marketing

Shooting for the Stars: UNA Student and Professor Awarded Grant to Research Star Clusters
Jan. 28, 2011



FLORENCE, Ala. – For UNA student Daniel Johnson, 34, the love of astronomy has governed his life for many years. The physics and math double major will soon come one step closer to achieving his dreams after being awarded a national grant to conduct research in Cerro Tololo, Chile, this summer.

Johnson submitted a research proposal in October 2010 to Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society on the topic of star clusters. The society, which includes 60,000 scientists from more than 100 countries around the world, awarded Johnson a $2,800 grant to study in Chile for 10 days in late July with Dr. Mel Blake of the UNA Department of Physics and Earth Science.

According to Johnson, the society awards grants to less than 20 percent of applicants, and the fact that he is an undergraduate student makes his award even more rare. Blake said they had to also apply to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory to use the 3.25 ft. telescope in Chile.

“I am excited and thankful to Dr. Blake for his help and encouragement,” Johnson said. “Any research experience that you have when you’re applying to graduate school helps, and the fact that I’ve gotten this national grant will hopefully make me competitive for future jobs.”

During the 10-day excursion in July, Johnson and Blake intend to use the grant to study two star clusters to see which one has more variable stars and to see if there is any correlation between the populations of large blue and variable stars.

“The key thing to me is that this is a grant that was written by Daniel, and it’s a national competition with grants that students from all over the United States are competing for,” Blake said. “This certainly says something about him in that he went after it. There were students from big schools that were applying for this money, and for him to beat out the competition like that is pretty good.”

Blake and Johnson recently returned from the 217th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, where they presented research they conducted last summer when Johnson worked as a summer research assistant at the UNA Planetarium and Observatory.

Johnson, a 2009 graduate of Jackson State Community College with an associate’s degree in general studies with an emphasis in biology, is the vice president of the UNA Society of Physics Students and was recently able to secure funding to help build UNA’s first radio telescope, which will begin construction this semester.

In addition to attending school full time, Johnson works 40 hours a week as a phlebotomist and lab assistant with Hardin Medical Center in Savannah, Tenn. He hopes to attain a Ph.D. in physics after graduation and eventually work for NASA.

For more information, contact Blake in the Department of Physics and Earth Science at 256-765-4284 or rmblake@una.edu.