Student Spotlight: Catherine Johns Keeps Her Sights on the Stars

Executive MBA Student, Catherine Johns, has always shot for the moon, even when she was a little girl. “I think most people have a moment from childhood that is etched in their memory,” says Catherine. “For me, it was watching the launch of the very first space shuttle, seeing this beautiful white bird soar into the air and escape the Earth’s pull. It just felt as though the whole world was watching. We were united in celebrating the next step on this extraordinary journey of exploration, a journey that is fundamental to who we are. Space exploration and astronomy remind us all of the best of ourselves.” 

It’s safe to say that Catherine’s passion for space was written in the stars. After an accomplished career path in the space industry, Catherine is now the CEO of Kielder Observatory, a public astronomical observatory located on nearly 580 square miles, their dark sky zone, known as Northumberland and Kielder Water and Forest International Dark Sky Park. It is the second largest area of protected night sky in Europe and is said to be one of the “most remarkable places to visit in the U.K.” 

Image Credit: Kielder Observatory

“There is something extraordinary about Kielder,” says Catherine. “There are many observatories in the world, all of them special, all of them unique, but there is something about our landscape, our location, the quality of the dark skies, that truly opens up the soul of the universe for people. We sit in the largest Gold Tier dark sky park in Europe, as certified by the International Dark Sky Association, in the largest man-made forest in Northern Europe and next to the largest man-made lake in England. It’s a wild, rugged landscape but it was actively created by humans, thinking in the long term, for the good of the planet.” 

One of Catherine’s favorite aspects about the observatory is seeing visitors experience their Kielder moment for the first time. “The Kielder moment is very special, it’s the moment that visitors look up at the glittering skies and realize they are completely connected to this vast cosmos, yet utterly unique within it. My favorite part of the job is seeing the team at work, helping that moment of realization dawn on so many faces.”

But when the COVID-19 pandemic quickly brought public restrictions and quarantines, Catherine and her team knew they would need to get creative in order to maintain these Kielder moments remotely. “My priority was to try and convey that special Kielder moment to more people than could visit us on site. So, Kielder Constellations was born. It was a new approach to delivering our purpose: to create opportunities for people of all backgrounds and abilities to experience moments of inspiration, revelation, wonder and hope through observing the cosmos. In the works we also have an augmented reality app, a new digital learning platform, new arts programs and of course, our new radio telescope. Everyone needs that moment of inspiration and have that lightbulb moment.”

Keeping that lightbulb moment alive and igniting STEM excitement in the next generation is also a major goal for Catherine. Kielder has now launched its “STEM to Stars” program. Through this, young students can learn about STEM careers, help restore a William Herschel telescope, and discover the mechanics of observation. “We have a team of mentors from the industry to help and inspire the children,” says Catherine. “This makes it very real to children that the space industry isn’t something that happens in the United States or Russia, it happens right around the corner from them.”

This type of combination of academic research and community-based citizen science has given Kielder deserved recognition in the space industry. Most recently, the observatory was funded by the Tanlaw Foundation to install a Spider 500 radio telescope. A radio telescope scans the sky for radio waves from space and, unlike optical telescopes, is not weather dependent. It can also be remotely observed and controlled at any time.

“Radio telescopes see the universe differently to our eyes and to optical telescopes. They detect radio waves from things like nebulae, planets, stars, etc. So, there are many projects that we will be commissioning the telescope to do, such as a comparison of optical and radio images of the Sun or the Moon; the search for radio anomalies (asteroids, comets, etc.) around the Kuiper Belt; the study of the Aurora Borealis and connections with Solar Wind and Earth’s Magnetic Field, and the study of time itself or astrochronometry.” 

Seeing education in a new light and expanding on innovative ways to learn is why Catherine knew Quantic would be the perfect fit to pursue her MBA. “I loved the whole ethos of it. I’d wanted to do an MBA for some time, but I wanted something fresh and innovative. I tried out some of the courses as part of the application and they were just so much fun. Learning was scaffolded and challenging in just the right way. You can see that from the cohort; an amazing network of people, all ambitious, all collaborative, all talented.” 

Catherine is excited to see the continued advancements in the space industry and believes that “looking up” can do us all a little good.  “In my experience, most people think it’s the coolest industry to be in, aside maybe from the arts. Of course, we have ongoing developments with SpaceX, missions to Mars. That is all very exciting, but I think we have to be careful not to forget that we are all naturally part of the space industry – no matter where we are, we can all look up, we can all see a few stars, a reminder of our unique place in this universe.” 


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