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Friends in high places

With her dynamic personality and engineering know-how, Kristina Johnson builds relationships - and institutions - wherever she goes.

From oemagazine October 2003
30 October 2003, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200310.0007

If anyone had a genetic predisposition to engineering, Kristina Johnson did. Her father, Robert G. Johnson, was an electrical engineer with Westinghouse for 37 years. Her grandfather, Charles W. Johnson, was the engineering assistant to George Westinghouse.

Her father showed her a Scientific American article on holography in 1968, and it fascinated her. During high school in Denver, CO, she did a science fair project on mapping the growth of a fungus using holography, and won first place in the state, then took first and second at the international level.

"It really helped me to get a third-party endorsement that this was an okay thing to do," Johnson says. "I relied on that quite a bit in the early days, and it gave me a lot of confidence." In 1981 at SPIE's Annual Meeting in San Diego, the young Stanford graduate student presented her first paper. With many presentations at the same symposium spanning more than 20 years, she was back again this summer as an invited speaker in a conference honoring optics legend Emil Wolf, one of Johnson's biggest fans.

"Kristina has done some fine scientific work, especially in connection with utilization of liquid crystals for various devices," Wolf says. The two met at an optics conference in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1981.

As Johnson tells it, "a bunch of us students were out dancing late one night, and he [Wolf] was right there with us. At the end of the evening he asked who would like to meet him for a swim at 7 the next morning." Even though she knew the pool wasn't warm, and despite the short night, she decided it was important to show up. It began a tradition of hotel-pool swims that was renewed at the recent San Diego symposium when Johnson joined Wolf and his wife, Marlies, in the Marriott's pool—but not at 7 a.m.

While Wolf admits the pool in Mexico was "relatively cold," it spawned a friendship that is anything but.

"My wife and I feel fortunate to be able to count her among our friends," he says. "Kristina has a delightful personality that makes her very popular."

Old friends Kristina Johnson and Emil Wolf at the Awards Banquet during SPIE's Annual Meeting in August.

Johnson's technical expertise and organizational skills have led her through a remarkable career so far. Johnson helped to found the Optoelectronic Computing Systems Center (Boulder, CO), a collaboration between the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, funded by the National Science Foundation; she became director in 1993. The center spun off 14 new companies in a five-year period. She took a leave of absence to co-found one of the companies, ColorLink (Boulder, CO), which makes components for color projection devices based on differing polarizations of light.

"One night at midnight I was counting defects under a microscope and it occurred to me, 'There's probably something else I could be doing,'" she says. The "something else" came along when she became dean of the Duke University (Durham, NC) Pratt School of Engineering; she is the first female dean in the school's 60-year history.

At Duke, she espouses a unique focus on engineering "end-to-end" photonics systems, incorporating the development of business as well as engineering skills among the students. Her vision is well on its way to reality, with a state-of-the-art, 120,000-square-foot facility dedicated to photonics now under construction. The Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Communication Systems was made possible by a $25 million gift from Michael J. and Patty Fitzpatrick (www.fitzpatrick.duke.edu).

Over the years Johnson has garnered an impressive array of honors; she was named to the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame last June. She received a regional Emmy nomination in 1991 for a 10-part educational television series, called "The Physics of Light," which is aimed at fifth to eighth grade students. Johnson was also invited to testify before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation last year to share her ideas on attracting more women and minorities to careers in science. It all started with that science fair project back in high school.

Emil Wolf laments that with her duties as dean, her friends don't get to see her as often, and Johnson confirms that her time is about 90% administration and 10% research these days.

She has always been an athlete (varsity lacrosse and field hockey at Stanford, and even cricket during a postdoc at Trinity College in Ireland), and still finds time to visit her ranch in Colorado for Western riding on her horse, Hank. She also enjoys hiking, and has a golf score in the 90s. The latter comes in handy when playing with benefactors at Duke, she says. "You want to play with them, but you don't want to beat them!"