Last Lectures: Prof. Johnny Powell [physics 1987–2018]

Saluting our retiring (and not-so-retiring) professors

By Romel Hernandez | April 8, 2019

Prof. Johnny Powell points toward a shelf of thesis books bound in black, blue, green, and burgundy, author names scribbled on the spines in gold ink.

“That,” he says, “is my legacy.”

After three decades of teaching, he takes the greatest pride in the work of his students. Especially those he mentored—working alongside them in the lab, or encouraging, challenging, and reassuring them as they toiled away on their senior theses.

“I always wanted to be as real as possible with my students,” he says. “I love having those deep one-on-one conversations, taking time to figure things out with them.”

Prof. Powell grew up in LA and was inspired by a childhood visit to the Griffith Park Observatory. “I knew from that point” that he would grow up to be a scientist, he says. “There was never a question about it.”

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cal State–Northridge during the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Disillusioned” with the grind of grad school, he joined the Peace Corps and taught for three years in Malaysia, where he rekindled his love of physics and discovered a passion for birdwatching.

After returning stateside, he earned a PhD from Arizona State, specializing in spectroscopy experiments on DNA. Following a postdoc stint at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, he was wooed to Reed in 1987 by Prof. Nick Wheeler ’55 [physics 1963–2010].

At Reed he pursued biophysics, earning a reputation in the department as a prolific researcher, securing big grants from the National Science Foundation. About a decade ago he changed course and returned to his first love—astrophysics, specifically the dynamics of barred spiral galaxies.

“Johnny was way ahead of the curve in recognizing that research isn’t something that comes at the expense of teaching, but that it goes hand in hand with working with students,” says Prof. Joel Franklin ’97 [physics 2005–], who credits Powell for helping him get through the rigors of his own undergraduate days at Reed. He sees more to admire now that they are colleagues.

“He is so fiercely engaged with students,” Franklin says. “He approaches everything he does with incredible passion and enthusiasm, whether it’s birding or physics or mentoring.”

“I feel incredibly fortunate to have had Johnny as a mentor,” says Noah Muldavin ’13, who developed a computer simulation of the evolution of a spiral galaxy for his thesis. “He is so enthusiastic, it helps just being around someone so positive in a place as intense as Reed.”

Several former students traveled across the country to attend his retirement party, and others recorded videos paying tribute to his impact on their lives. “I spent a long time at Reed feeling like I somehow didn’t fulfill my promise, before getting to see that my work as a mentor to students is what was really important,” Powell says. “It’s crazy to have to live 70 years to figure out who you are!”

In retirement he plans to continue his work in astrophysics and looks forward to having more time for travel. Birding has taken him and his wife Shari to far-flung destinations such as Brazil, Madagascar, Bhutan, and Antarctica. His bird “life list” stands at a staggering 3,500 species. His top three most-wanted birds are the Ross’s gull, a native of the Arctic; the La Sagra’s flycatcher, a denizen of the Caribbean; and the ashy storm petrel, a seabird found off the Northern California coast. He seems sanguine about getting them, but the fun is in the pursuit.

“You might travel across the world to a new place hoping to find a particular rare bird,” he says. Sometimes you see the bird. Sometimes you don’t. In a way the bird is almost beside the point. “The thing is, you get to enjoy so many other wonderful experiences along the way.”

Tags: Professors