Illuminating Change

IEEE Fellow is the first woman to receive the John Fritz Medal

6 October 2008

When the phone call came, Kristina M. Johnson was sure she was being fooled. This IEEE Fellow would be the first woman to receive the John Fritz Medal from the American Association of Engineering Societies, a top engineering award dating to 1902 whose recipients include Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Guglielmo Marconi.

It was no joke: She received the award—consisting of a medallion, pin, and certificate—in May.

“I was very surprised—I didn’t even know I’d been nominated. I e-mailed the association and asked whether it was a prank,” she says, laughing. “It’s not only the pressure of being the first woman but simply being on the list.” Johnson—who last year was the first woman named provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore—was lauded for her expertise in optics, optoelectronic switching, and display technology, as well as research in smart pixel arrays that incorporate electronics with optical elements. She worked on the technology from 1986 to 1999 while she was a computer and electrical engineering professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Arrays are now used in high-definition TV displays, cancer prescreening systems, and security cameras. While at the university, she directed the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Optoelectronic Computing Systems. In addition, she has published 142 articles, holds 129 U.S. and international patents, and cofounded several companies that manufacture and market this new technology.

Leaving the University of Colorado in 1999, Johnson served eight years as dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering in Durham, N.C., and was one of the country’s first female engineering deans. Under her leadership, the engineering school more than tripled its research expenditures from US $12 million to either $40 million or $60 million (depending on whether you include just Pratt or cross-discipline contracts), and its endowment exploded from less than $20 million to more than $200 million. She helped recruit 50 new faculty members, 15 of whom had received National Science Foundation Career and Office of Naval Research awards recognizing outstanding early research; increased its undergraduate student body by 20 percent while cutting attrition by more than half; and doubled the number of graduate programs. She also oversaw the planning, funding, and construction of the Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine, and Applied Sciences.

Among numerous other accolades, Johnson—a strong advocate for woman and minority entrée to engineering—was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 2003 and the following year won the Achievement Award of the Society of Women Engineers. She is also a Fellow of both the Optical Society of America and SPIE (formerly the Society of Photo-Instrumentation Engineers.)

OPTICAL INSPIRATION Johnson’s love of optics began in high school, but she’s got engineering in her blood. Her father and grandfather were electrical engineers at Westinghouse (grandpa worked as an engineer alongside George Westinghouse himself).

“I entered Stanford dead set on studying physics,” she says. “But when my dad died in my sophomore year, I switched to engineering to get to know what my father loved about it. I loved it too and have never looked back.”

She joined IEEE as a student for its society meetings and camaraderie. “IEEE meetings were the one place where we could get together as geeks and it was cool,” she says.

She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in EE in 1981 from Stanford and completed her Ph.D. there in 1984. A year later, she joined the University of Colorado, Boulder, as an assistant professor. While there, she received a 1985 Presidential Young Investigator Award, worked on a children’s television series on the physics of light that garnered a regional Emmy nomination in 1991, and became the university’s first tenure-track female professor in electrical and computer engineering, attaining a full professorship in 1994.

As Johns Hopkins’ chief academic officer, Johnson’s main focus nowadays is promoting and attracting quality faculty, which leaves less time for research than she had in her early academic posts. Even so, her interests are departing slightly from optics. Johnson is now working on a new project involving a series of niche search engines for specialized topics. But her commitment to bringing up the next crop of female engineers is as strong as ever.

“I’m passionate about getting more women and minorities into engineering,” Johnson says. ”We need more role models to inspire underrepresented individuals in the field. It’s a profession that not only provides opportunities for women but is instrumental in rebuilding this country’s middle class and slowing outsourcing of scientific innovation.”

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