Helen Johnson

Thank you so much for voting! So excited to have won :)

Favourite Thing: I like that there are so many unanswered questions. The Universe is a big place and there’s so much left to explore!



Durham University (2008-2012), Liverpool Blue Coat School (2006-2008)


MPhys Physics degree; A level Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Further Maths

Work History:

Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics in Potsdam & University of Manchester

Current Job:

Astronomy PhD Student


Durham University

Me and my work

I use the world’s largest telescopes to ‘time-travel’, studying the Universe as it was billions of years ago – extreme, dynamic and always surprising.

I have THE best job.

My PhD involves analysing observations made using the world’s most sophisticated telescopes, such as the VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile. The light from distant stars takes a really long time to reach us here on Earth, so as we’re delving deeper into space we’re actually looking further and further back in time too! I’ve always found that amazing. We can glimpse what the Universe was like billions of years ago, and ‘play detective’ – piecing together clues to figure out how it eventually came to look like what we see today.

I’m most interested in distant galaxies, which can look a lot different to the Milky Way – our ‘home’ galaxy. Some are forming stars in spectacular, violent bursts; some colliding with each other in a beautiful but destructive dance across the sky. Others pile material on to ‘supermassive’ black holes at their centre, releasing huge amounts of energy. Using state of the art telescopes and new techniques, we can now see galaxies as they were 10 billion years ago in incredible detail. To put this in perspective – the time since dinosaurs roamed the Earth is less than 1% of this!

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Top left: Meeting Brian Cox on the set of BBC Stargazing Live

Top right: Getting started early with a solar telescope

Bottom: The VLT at Paranal, Chile. Image courtesy of ESO.

My Typical Day

Unravelling the mysteries of the Universe of course! Computer programming, reading about exciting new science, chatting to other astronomers over coffee…

My typical day is spent in the office – analysing data, reading, learning, and trying to make sense of it all. There’s always plenty of laughing and chatting with my office-mates though too. Our white board often has pictures of dinosaurs alongside the spectra and serious equations! Things don’t always go to plan in research, but I love the challenge of figuring out how to make my code work, problem solving and thinking on my feet. It’s worth it ten times over when you get those results out.

One of the things I like most about astronomy is being a part of this great network of people, all striving together to find something new. Every week we have guest speakers from all over the world coming to share their work with us. It’s a fantastic way to learn about inspiring new developments, and means we get to travel a lot too.

My research is all the more exciting in that I have opportunity to use telescopes in exotic places. Observing at the VLT in August was an unbelievable trip! Experiencing science at its most cutting-edge, studying what others may never have looked at before – that will never get old for me.

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Left: Me inside one of the telescopes at the VLT. Nice hat?

Right: One of my favourite images. Each different coloured object is a galaxy, but the image only covers one thirteen-millionth of the total area of the sky. Imagine how many galaxies there are in total! Courtesy of NASA / Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

What I'd do with the money

I’d use it to benefit as many students as possible.

I would be so excited if I was lucky enough to win.
I’d love to use the money in a way that not only benefits the students in my area, but you too! Using it to buy new equipment to take into local schools, giving new demonstrations, explaining astronomy to them – that would be great. What would be even better is if I could combine this with something to thank you and your schools for taking part in I’m A Scientist. Maybe creating videos about my work, hosting more live chats – perhaps even from an observatory in the middle of the desert – I’d love to share these incredible experiences with you and get you all well and truly involved!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Stargazer, daydreamer, eternal-child

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Queen, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin… Taylor Swift!

What's your favourite food?

Sushi, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I met a Despicable Me minion. I’ve also been on TV with Brian Cox

What did you want to be after you left school?

I honestly had no idea, other than I loved science

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Only for chatting too much

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Used the VLT (Very Large Telescope) in the middle of the Atacama desert, Chile

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Wreaking havoc in the chemistry labs at school :)

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Travelling the world taking photos, chasing storms

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Unlimited travel, unlimited telescope time… and maybe a trip in the Tardis to see my favourite bands ‘back in the day’

Tell us a joke.

What does E.T. stand for? … Because he doesn’t have a chair!

Other stuff

Work photos:

I work on the KROSS survey, using brand new spectrograph KMOS on the VLT to study the dynamics (internal motions) of distant galaxies.

We can compare our observations to highly sophisticated computer simulations of the Universe. At Durham, astrophysicists have been working on The Eagle Project – see video below.

Follow me on twitter – @strangequarklet