Sant Director, National Museum of Natural History

Close-up of Dr. Kirk Johnson in the field with a black hat on holding a rock containing fossil leaves.
Dr. Kirk Johnson holding a rock—containing fossil leaves—discovered during an expedition to the Hell Creek Formation in North Dakota in 2013. Photo by Diana Marsh, Smithsonian.

Dr. Kirk Johnson is the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He oversees more than 460 employees and a collection of more than 127 million objects—the largest collection at the Smithsonian. The Museum hosts more than 7 million visitors a year and its scientists publish about 500 scientific research contributions a year.

Kirk started collecting arrowheads and fossil shells on summer trips with his parents to California and Wyoming. When he was 12, a paleobiology curator at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle inspired him to write letters to scientists, asking them questions about fossils. He did not decide to become a scientist until he was in college. "Up until that point in time, I hadn’t really realized that corresponding with scientists, finding things, and working in a natural history museum—that was really science," he explained. "Once you see what science is, then there’s no stopping you. If you have curiosity, if you keep your childhood curiosity, then every day is amazing."

He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Geology and Fine Arts from Amherst College, a master’s degree in Geology and Paleobotany from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from Yale University.

Kirk's research includes the study of the geology and fossil plants of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains from 34 to 145 million years ago. He also studies the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary extinction event and the origin of major ecological communities known as biomes. Kirk led an excavation in Snowmass Village, Colorado, that recovered more than 5,400 bones of mammoths, mastodons and other ice age animals. The findings inspired him to publish the book, "Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies." He is the author of numerous scientific papers and has edited seven scientific volumes.