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A life in science grounded President Johnson for leadership

From the BP oil spill to TV displays, a career of accomplishments

It was spring 2010 and Kristina Johnson found herself at the White House, shaking hands with then-President Barack Obama at an event to get school-aged kids excited about science.

At the time, Johnson, now the 16th president of The Ohio State University, was serving as under-secretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy and it was just days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The spill was an environmental disaster that killed 11 people and poured barrels of oil into the Gulf’s waters. The Deepwater Horizon, a floating drilling rig that had been exploring a well for oil, had sunk. Crude oil was leaking from the open well into the Gulf, and at the time, no one could say how much oil might be pouring out each day.

Johnson remembers shaking President Obama’s hand, and telling him, Mr. President, we are doing everything we can about the spill. She remembers Obama saying something like, Well, thanks, and that night, she replayed the quick conversation in her head over and over.

“Here I am meeting the president of the United States at an event for kids,” she said, “and probably the last thing he wanted to be reminded of is this environmental disaster looming in the Gulf.”

In the middle of that night, Johnson woke up and remembered a project she’d completed for a high school science fair that used holography – a method of creating 3D photographic images – to monitor a fungus’s growth.

That project helped inform experiments she’d done earlier in her career at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can measure the flow of water in a tank by using double-exposure holography to measure the velocity of beads seeded in the water, a technique known as Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV). For the BP disaster, Johnson realized, it might be that the grout in the oil escaping from the pipes could perform the same function as the beads in her PIV experiments.

“I thought, if we can determine the velocity of the sand and grit in the oil, we can tell how much oil is coming out, because that would be similar to the beads of water in the tank,” she said.

She pulled her PIV paper off the web and immediately emailed it to Marcia McNutt, who was then the director of the U.S. Geological Service leading a federal group of scientists and engineers whose task was to create a scientific-based estimate of the flow of oil from the spill. “I said, ‘Marcia, I think I know how to measure the rate of oil spilling out of the pipe.’” It was around 3:30 a.m. when she sent the email; McNutt responded almost immediately. “It was just a testament to how hard we were all working on this – we were working all the time,” Johnson said.

A few days later, President Obama gave a press conference in the Rose Garden, announcing, based on work that started with Johnson’s realization, the dramatic scale of how much oil was spilling into the Gulf each day.

“We could frame the problem, finally,” she said. “And that was really important.”

For Johnson, it was a moment in a lifetime of moments that crystalized the importance of science in society. Her career had included titles such as inventor, professor, policymaker, business leader – but it started with “scientist.”

And those experiences are at the heart of everything she does, including, now, leading one of the largest public institutions of higher education in the country.

You might know her as Ohio State’s leader, and in her first six months, she made difficult choices about how to safely handle athletics and campus activities during a pandemic, while also launching task forces to address racism and social inequities, as well as safety and community well-being. But Johnson is also a scientist: If you’ve ever watched a 3D movie or been screened for cervical cancer, turned on a rear-projection TV in the early 2000s or used a head-up display, you likely made use of one of Johnson’s inventions.

For Johnson, it’s the sense of discovery, of working together to solve a problem, that drove her science and informs her leadership.

“Waking up and realizing the solution to problems is really fun,” she said. “The BP moment – that was awesome. That was just the best.”

Her scientific work began in high school and took hold during a physics class when she learned how light behaves as both a particle and a wave.

“We got to the light and waves part of physics, and it just seemed to click,” she says. “I thought it was just beautiful. The waves really were poetry in motion.”

It carried her to the high school science fair project mapping the growth of phycomyces, pole-shaped fungi that grow round receptacles for spores. (She jokes that the fungus and receptacles are kind of shaped like Brutus, “sort of like a stick with a big head on top.”) The project won the city and state science fairs, and placed first and second at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

She went on to Stanford University, armed with a scholarship and a deep appreciation for engineering, and earned a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD, then was a NATO postdoctoral fellow at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, before becoming a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

At Colorado, her lab focused on applications of liquid crystal on silicon and 3D display systems, discoveries for which she would become best known as an engineer and inventor. Johnson originally thought the technology she was developing would be useful for cancer detection and optical signal processing.

But the companies that visited her lab saw a different use – high-definition television. So, her lab launched a research program into displays, and in 2015, she and a former postdoctoral researcher who worked with her, Gary Sharp, were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for their contributions, which included collaboration on most of her 119 U.S. and international patents.

They continued working in other areas, though, including using the technology to detect cancerous cells among healthy ones in pap smears or mammograms. It was that work that taught Johnson the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration: It wasn’t until the team of engineers brought on a pathologist that they understood what problem really needed to be solved – and then they solved it.

Her scientific achievements have won her accolades and awards. Earlier this year, Johnson became the first recipient of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Mildred Dresselhaus Medal, for her “leadership and technical contributions spanning academia, government and business.”

Dresselhaus was a giant in engineering, made even more notable because she was a woman during a time when women were not encouraged – and often prohibited, either blatantly or surreptitiously – from a career in the sciences. Dresselhaus, who died in 2017, was a nanotechnologist known as the “queen of carbon science” for her work, and was the first tenured female professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She made promoting women in the sciences a fundamental part of her career – something Johnson, too, has focused on when she had leadership positions that enabled her to do so, developing programs to encourage women and minorities to become faculty members at Duke University, Johns Hopkins University and the State University of New York.

“We’re looking now to develop, with the deans, provost and the Task Force on Racism and Racial Inequities, a similar program that would be suitable for Ohio State,” she said. “All students need to see faculty who look like them – as role models and mentors. Diverse teams have demonstrated they out-perform more homogeneous organizations.”

That is the approach she hopes to bring to Ohio State, and the approach she’s used throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

When she first arrived in Columbus, at the end of July, preparations for returning as many students as was safely possible to campus were already underway. But Johnson, along with her team, saw that a safe-as-possible return would require more testing than had been planned – which would have tested about 300 people per day.

“And we thought, well, given the surge in the virus spread, we probably need to do an order of magnitude more,” she said.

Within weeks, the university had opened testing for all students living on campus. Ohio State has now scaled up to test graduate students, faculty and students living off campus. That, she said, required quick planning and a lot of focused collaboration. Johnson said that the credit goes to Morley Stone, senior vice president for research; Amy Fairchild, College of Public Health dean; Andrew Thomas, Wexner Medical Center chief clinical officer; Christy Bertolo of the Office of Corporate Engagement; Melissa Shivers, senior vice president for student life; Jay Kasey, senior vice president for administration and planning; and all the leaders in Ohio State’s COVID-19 Implementation Response Team.

“Ohio State has so many opportunities to collaborate, especially when it comes to vaccine research and deployment. We have the Fisher College of Business, which has one of the best programs in logistics; the College of Engineering with expertise in manufacturing, materials and mobility; the Infectious Diseases Institute; and all the cross-disciplinary things happening in the Wexner Medical Center,” she said. “It just seems natural to leverage those resources to study the evolution, development and deployment of vaccines at scale.”

Johnson said she expects Ohio State to use these strengths and others to tackle more of society’s pressing issues.

“That, to me, is the power of what Ohio State can be.”

Johnson will deliver her first State of the University address on Thursday, February 18, at 4 p.m. in conjunction with the University Senate meeting. Additional information is available on the State of the University address registration webpage.

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