Robert C. Kennicutt Jr. grew up in upstate New York. He received his BS in physics from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, in 1973, and then moved to Seattle where he earned his masters (1976) and doctoral degrees (1978) in astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle. He then worked at the Hale Observatory (now the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Pasadena, California) and at the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena.
In 1980, Kennicutt joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Astronomy and then, in 1988, joined the faculty at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, where he continues as a Professor of Astronomy today. From 1999 to 2006, he also served as editor-in-chief of The Astrophysical Journal, considered the foremost international research journal in astronomy and astrophysics. He is currently the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy in England, as well as its Director. Kennicut has received many professional awards and honors, including the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics (2007) awarded jointly by the American Institute of Physics and the American Astronomical Society. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001 and the National Academy of Sciences in 2006 and is a Fellow of Churchill College at Cambridge.
Most of Kennicutt’s work has focused on the physical processes behind large-scale star formation and galaxy evolution. He has developed diagnostic methods for characterizing galaxy evolution at high redshift. (The more distant a galaxy, the higher its redshift, a measurement of the speed at which it is expanding.) A major part of his research has also focused on calibrating standard candles for measuring distances to galaxies, and it was this work that led him to his leadership role in the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project on the Extragalactic Distance Scale.
One of Kennicutt’s favorite celestial objects to study has been the bright, spiral galaxy M51 (also known as the “Whirlpool Galaxy”), one of the most conspicuous galaxies in the night sky. He is currently leading the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxies Survey (SINGS) project, which is undertaking an in-depth survey of 75 nearby star-forming galaxies, including M51. He also leads the KINGFISH Key Project on the recently launched Herschel Space Observatory (Key Insights on Nearby Galaxies: A Far-Infrared Survey with Herschel), which is a major extension of the SINGS project.