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Sönke Johnsen


Contact Information:

Dr. Sönke Johnsen
Biology Department
301 Biological Sciences Bldg
Duke University
Durham, NC 27708

Research Interests:

Comparative physiology; focusing on optical adaptations to a pelagic existence, including topics such as transparency, cryptic coloration, bioluminescence, ultraviolet protection and vision, and orientation and navigation.


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Ph.D., Biology, 1996, 1990-1996
      Dr. William M. Kier, advisor.
Swarthmore College: B.A. with Distinction (highest honor), Mathematics, 1988, 1984-1988.
      Phi Beta Kappa and National Merit Scholarship.

Professional Experience:

Professor, Biology Department, Duke University. 2012-

Research Associate, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History 2012-

Associate Professor, Biology Department, Duke University. 2007-2012

Assistant Professor, Biology Department, Duke University. 2001-2007

Adjunct Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 2002-2005

Adjunct Professor, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University. 2002-

Assistant Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 2000-2001

Postdoctoral Scholar, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 1999-2000
      Dr. Laurence P. Madin, advisor.

Postdoctoral Fellow, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, 1997-1998
      Dr. Edith A. Widder, advisor.

Lecturer, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 1996-1997

National Science Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Biology, 1991-1994
      University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Recent Research Grants:

“Bioluminescence in the deep-sea benthos II” 2014-2015
NOAA Ocean Exploration, $478,914

“Long-range geomagnetic navigation in sea turtles: An interdisciplinary approach to localizing magnetite-based biological magnetoreceptors” 2014-2019
Air Force Office of Scientific Research $2,462,029

“Dynamic Camouflage in Benthic and Pelagic Cephalopods: An interdisciplinary approach to crypsis based on color, reflection, and bioluminescence” 2009-2013
Office of Naval Research $7,341,938

“Bioluminescence in the Deep-sea Benthos” 2009-2010
NOAA Ocean Exploration, $424,807

“Midwater animal models: Optical measurement of metabolic transitions in transparent pelagic biota” 2009-2011
National Science Foundation, ~$650,000

“Deep Down Under: Exploration of Australia’s deep waters” 2007-2009
ARC and private support (~$500,000 USD and 3 years of ship and submersible time)

“Operation Deep-Scope 2007: Characterization of cliff ecosystems using new technologies” 2007-2008
NOAA Ocean Exploration, $352,140

"Selective invisibility based on the differing temporal resolutions of sea turtles and billfish under low light conditions" 2005-2006
NOAA/NMFS, $15,306.

"Operation Deep-Scope 2005" 2005-2006
NOAA Ocean Exploration, $328,905

"Transparency: Ultrastructural and biochemical modification in muscular and ocular tissues" 2005-2008
National Science Foundation $409,999

"Mathematical model of the visual abilities of sea turtles and pelagic fishes" 2003-2004
NOAA/NMFS $39,470.

"Characterization of deep-sea communities using advanced optical techniques" 2004
NOAA Ocean Exploration, $392,000

"Integrative and Comparative Vision Research" 2003
National Science Foundation, $6,000.

"Perception of bioluminescent signals underwater" 2002-2003
Office of Naval Research, $12,004.

"Biologically Inspired Underwater Navigation Based on Geomagnetism" 2002-2003
Office of Naval Research, $99,956.

"Development of a Large Area Plankton Imaging System” 2002-2004
National Science Foundation, $499,820.

"Development of a Portable Underwater Hyperspectral Radiometer”, 2000-2002
Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Technology Foundation, $30,700.

"Eutrophication in Waquoit Bay: Effects on Visual Predation”, 2000-2001
Rinehart Coastal Research Center, $31,792.


Sönke Johnsen, Justin Marshall and Mark Hooper bluewater diving in the Bahamas. Credit: Mark Schrope


Click to download CV
New: self-interview in Current Biology

All my life, I never wanted to be a biologist. After choosing a college solely on the fact that a family friend's hardware store was in the same town, I began a major in Physics. An Algebra professor who danced and told funny stories about pathological geniuses convinced me to change my major to Mathematics. I added a major in art, mostly abortive because I refused to take art history, and left college disenchanted with education.

I then worked as a daycare provider and kindergarten teacher for Quakers, a freelance carpenter, and a dance teacher for three year olds. It was during this last job that I met Sarah, the daughter of Scott Gilbert, who wrote the developmental biology textbook used by most colleges. After hitch-hiking across the Pacific Northwest, I decided that I needed more education. A friend and I went through the alphabet. Deciding that a career in art was likely to be a raw deal, settled on Biology and met with Scott Gilbert and Rachel Merz. Rachel suggested good places to go to graduate school and Scott got me a job with a friend of his, Stuart Kauffman.

Luckily, the job with Stu required no knowledge of biology and several graduate schools admitted me despite the same lack. I went to UNC, and after a year of reading and drawing pictures of bugs on the lawn, I decided that biology was "okay". With little knowledge but high enthusiasm, I chose a high-risk, low-benefit project that I left behind the moment I handed in my thesis. My advisor, Bill Kier, pointed me to oceanic zooplankton, we both thought about transparency, and I applied to two oceanographic institutions, both of which turned me down. I cleaned fish tanks for a year, applied again, and both then accepted me. I went on my first research cruise to the Gulf of Maine with Edie Widder. It was stormy, the ship smelled, and I was seasick. It was the best time of my life. Nineteen years later, I have yet to look back.


Duke University | Biological Sciences Bldg, Room 301 | (919) 660-7321 | sjohnsen@duke.edu