PRISM Magazine Online - April 2000
Ms. Wizard Works Her Magic

Kristina Johnson, Duke University's new engineering dean, has a resume that won't quit—but she's not about to rest on past accomplishments.

By Viva Hardigg

Photographs by Linda CreightonEarly last October, Kristina Johnson received a very tangible endorsement as dean of engineering at Duke University. Alumnus Edmund T. Pratt Jr. gave $35 million to her school, the largest contribution the university had received since James B. Duke's original gifts in the 1920s. "Leadership is an important factor when making decisions to invest in a venture," explained Pratt, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer Inc. After praising Duke's president, he went on to say: "I am impressed not only with the leadership [former dean] Earl Dowell gave to the school but by the remarkable scholarly and research accomplishments of its able and dynamic new dean, Kristina Johnson." Not bad for a leader who had arrived at her post only one month before.

Johnson's reputation, however, has a habit of preceding her—at least since her senior year at Denver's Thomas Jefferson High School in 1975. That was the year she decided to map the growth of a fungus, using holography, for a science fair project. Chemistry had been her first love, but she had moved on to physics because, as she now recalls, "It was harder, so I thought I should try to become a physicist." Her project won the city contest, then the state, and ended up with a first and a second in the physics division at the International Science and Engineering Fair. "I figured there was something to this and that I should stick with it," she says.

When she went on to Stanford, it didn't take Johnson long to find optics professor Joseph Goodman, who did holography work, and to begin working in his lab. En route to her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, Johnson won letters as a right wing in field hockey and a left attack wing in lacrosse. When asked what she liked about her chosen positions, her answer is simple: "Scoring."

The only blemish on her academic record was in itself a kind of triumph. It came in the form of a "C" for a psychology class. "The course was psychology of sex roles and I just didn't believe in sex roles, which was the major problem with me and the material," Johnson recalls with a slight smile. "We would read this stuff about how women are poorer performers in math and I just didn't believe that the science behind the experiments really supported the results. Needless to say, I didn't do too well in the class."

As Johnson pressed on toward her doctorate at Stanford, the rigors of academia were dwarfed by a more personal, and more difficult challenge—overcoming Hodgkin's disease through surgery, radiation therapy, and grit. It's an accomplishment that does not appear on her resume, and that she's not likely to trot out in conversation. She is quick to point out, however, that she has never had to meet adversity alone. Her greatest source of support has always been her four sisters, two brothers, and her late parents.

Photographs by Linda Creighton

"Sometimes you are going to be the water girl and sometimes you are going to be the star. And you have to be able to do both to the best of your ability."

Family Heritage

Her mother, in particular, served as her role model in perseverance and pluck. Born into an Irish immigrant family in New York City, her mother, Kathleen Bergin, remembered a childhood so poor that she would search for gleams of copper in the street and lift stray pennies out of grates using a stick tipped with chewing gum. When her parents died, Bergin worked at Bloomingdale's to support her younger brothers, while studying at Fordham University at night. She eventually became a model for Camay soap, posing as a bride under a banner that read "Your Dreams for Loveliness Can Come True." As a real bride, her dreams focused on top-notch educations for her children. "My mother always believed that education was the way forward," Johnson says. "She was very encouraging of us. We either went into law or teaching. All five girls in our family taught at one time."

On her paternal side Johnson found her role models in engineering. Both her father and grandfather worked as electrical engineers for Westinghouse Corporation. When she was a little girl, her dad taught her how to build telegraph sets. Gauging his audience well, he gave her a book on electricity and magnetism when she was nine. The next year, he presented her with her first slide rule. She says she still has it somewhere.

After Stanford, Johnson explored another strand of her family's heritage by living in Ireland. Sharing a flat with a bookish female cousin, she worked for two years as a NATO post-doctoral fellow at Trinity College's department of pure and applied physics in Dublin. She also got back on the playing field, this time trying her hand at cricket and making it all the way to a spot on the Irish Ladies Team in a match against Holland. Ireland won. But she still laments that she didn't earn a "cap," a distinction awarded only to full members of the Irish national team. Even after returning to the U.S. as an assistant professor in electrical engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, she would sneak back to Ireland to play in county tournaments with the hope of getting the elusive "cap." "In 1987, I was asked if I would be available for the World Cup in Australia, and I would have earned a cap then," she says with more than a trace of wistfulness. "But unfortunately, I needed to focus on getting tenure and being an adult. I was very tempted though."

Instead, she stayed in Boulder and achieved tenure in less than five years. Through CU's Science Discovery Program, she worked on a 10-part television series for school children on the physics of light that won a regional Emmy nomination in 1991. "It was a pain because you had to develop all the experiments, make sure they worked, get all the equipment together with no budget and be up at six in the morning to film all day. It was a wonderful experience but took a lot of time," she recalls. "I did it because I wanted school kids in Colorado to see that women could be Ms. Wizard. It's not always Mr. Wizard doing the fun experiments."

Commercial Sector

Off screen the following year, Ms. Wizard was named the deputy director of the Engineering Research Center for Optical Computing Systems, which she had helped found with a major grant from the National Science Foundation. When she became its full director in 1993, she began meeting her counterparts at other research universities. She got to know Olaf von Ramm of Duke, who first introduced her to his campus by inviting her to give a talk there on applications of optoelectronic technology in November of 1995.

That same year, she co-founded a company called ColorLink, Inc., based on optical technology invented and refined in her CU laboratory. ColorLink develops and manufactures color components for high-resolution electronic projection systems. Two years after its genesis, Johnson took a leave of absence from CU to concentrate on expanding the company and opening accounts in Asia. On one trip to Japan, she demonstrated her trademark stamina by meeting with 13 companies in 10 days.

With 30 patents and a joint venture in Japan in the works, Johnson felt ready to get back to what appears to be her truest calling: academic leadership. As much as she enjoyed the challenges of business, she missed the intellectual possibilities of the academy. "Companies generally don't have a lot of money and, therefore, it's hard to follow every idea you have," she says. "Whereas if you can get someone to fund it at a university, you can follow whatever dream you want."

When Duke invited her for interviews, she felt her company was positioned well enough to run without her. Interviewing at Duke meant the added plus of meeting a woman whose career she had long admired. Duke's president, Nannerl Keohane, had been a professor of political science at Stanford when Johnson was an undergraduate. "She became president of Wellesley while I was there," recalls Johnson. "I always thought that was pretty neat to go from professor to president and that's what I wanted to do. You have to be pretty unusual to do that. In the meetings I had with her and the provost, it became clear that they were willing to put resources behind the school of engineering and take it to the next step. And I like building things."

Delighted as she is to be back on a university campus, Johnson plans not to forget the skills and lessons she learned in the commercial sector. In fact, she hopes to fold some of them into the curriculum in a structured manner. "We have to offer several courses—at least one on finance so undergraduates can read balance sheets, understand what stock options are, and can get an assessment of the value of a company," she explains. "The second thing is project management—how you take a product to market, how you set up an infrastructure and a time line with milestones and goals and how you put together a team to meet them. The third thing is to understand reliability, cost, and manufacturability. Generally, we teach our students how to optimize to the right answer—and that's what we grade them on—which is usually based on how well a system performs from a technical standpoint, but not a from a cost, reliability, or manufacturability standpoint."

Vision of Excellence

Johnson would like to see the student engineer develop a pyramid of skills, among them a refined knowledge of how teams function efficiently. "People make blanket statements about working in teams, but I think it's a little more subtle than that," she says. "Sometimes you'll be on a team where you're a leader and sometimes you're a contributor, because you're out of your depth." She wants students to get plenty of practice at both. Early in her athletic career, someone inspired her to do a good job with the water and towels on the sidelines of a tournament, by explaining that she herself would soon count on that same assistance when out on the field. "[That advice was] right on: Sometimes you're going to be the water girl and sometimes you're going to be the star," she says. "And you have to be able to do both to the best of your ability equally without judgment."

In her first letter to Duke's engineering students last fall, Johnson again used the language of sports to describe her goals for the school. She said she sought to provide an environment in which student engineers could strive beyond the status of "winners" to become "champions." "The difference, as articulated by [Olympic swimming] gold medalist Janet Evans, is that winners are recognized for their accomplishments externally," she wrote. "Champions achieve greatness through hard work, dedication, and commitment in achieving their personal best." Of course in Kristina Johnson's case, her personal best is likely to win public recognition for years to come.

Viva Hardigg is a freelance writer in Chapel Hill, N.C.


Paving The Way

Women are starting to break into the highest ranks of engineering education. Just four years ago, there weren't any women heading engineering programs at major research universities. Now, including Kristina Johnson, there are four. Denice Denton became dean of engineering in 1996 at the University of Washington, and two years later Ilene Busch-Vishniac took over at Johns Hopkins. Last fall, Janie Fouke accepted the post at Michigan State.

Like their male counterparts, these women boast dazzling credentials. Denton has won numerous research and teaching awards, including a Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation. Busch-Vishniac held an endowed chair in mechanical engineering at the University of Texas before becoming a dean, and Fouke is one of the leading bioengineering scholars in the country.

Building a career in academia is challenging for everyone, but it can be particularly tough for women. In a recent Prism survey of women in engineering education, more than 55 percent reported experiencing gender discrimination.

Even so, these deans say their biggest challenges have nothing to do with gender. For Denton, it is retaining the best people. "There are so many great opportunities for engineers in this economy that it's tough to compete from an academic setting, especially in a booming high-tech economy like Seattle's," she says. Busch-Vishniac found it difficult to negotiate an unfamiliar school's culture. "On a few occasions," she recalls, "I did fly straight into the wall, but most of the time, my instincts seemed to be just fine."

Both advise people, and especially women, entering the profession to choose a supportive department, or a mentor who will stand by them throughout the course of their careers. Once established in such a place, adds Busch-Vishniac, "Don't forget to have fun. If your job becomes a chore, you are not in the right business."

    —Eric Iversen