Kirk Johnson, a world-renowned paleontologist who focuses on fossil plants and the extinction of the dinosaurs, visited Virginia Tech on Friday, Feb. 16.
He gave a 4 p.m. distinguished lecture, “Natural History in the Age of Humans,” at the Lyric Theatre in downtown Blacksburg. The lecture was free and open to the public; it was followed by a book signing in the theatre’s main lobby.
The event was part of the annual Distinguished Public Lecture Series hosted by the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, with funding from the Fralin Life Science Institute and the Virginia Tech Graduate School.
Johnson currently serves as the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where he oversees the world’s largest natural history collection comprised of more than 145 million specimens. As a paleontologist, Johnson has headed national and international expeditions that led to the discovery of 1,400 fossil sites.
One of Johnson’s most notable projects was the excavation of an ice age site near Snowmass Village, Colo., where more than 5,400 mammoth, mastodon, and other animal bones were recovered from that era. The dig was featured in the New York Times; on PBS in the NOVA documentary, “Ice Age Death Trap”; and served as the subject of his 2012 book, “Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies,” co-authored with Ian Miller.
Johnson is author of several other books, some of which will be available for sale at the book signing. In 2016 he received a Kavli Science Journalism Award for hosting the three-part NOVA 2015 documentary series, “Making North America.” In 2017, he hosted “Great Yellowstone Thaw,” a documentary series co-produced by PBS and the BBC that chronicles how animals adapt to changing seasons in Yellowstone National Park.
Before joining the Smithsonian in 2012, Johnson served as chief curator of the Denver Museum of Natural History, where he directed the museum’s Prehistory Journey exhibit installation. He holds a Ph.D. in geology and paleobotany from Yale University and completed postdoctoral research in the northern Australian rainforests.
Johnson’s visit represents the fifth in a public Distinguished Lecture Series sponsored by the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. The lecture series brings some of the world’s leading scholars to the Blacksburg community to discuss critical environmental and societal issues in an open forum.
“We were so fortunate to have Dr. Johnson, an eminent scholar and director of the world’s most popular natural history museum, engage the Blacksburg community. He lends a fascinating perspective to understanding today’s greatest societal challenges such as climate change,” said William Hopkins, director of the Global Change Center and professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “Dr. Johnson shared insights into what pre-historic processes can tell us about our future and the critical role that natural history museums play in research and science communication.”