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Lucinda Johnson Lucinda Johnson, director, Center for Water and the Environment

Lucinda Johnson:

Understanding and Guarding the Environment

When Lucinda Johnson talks about her career in science, she starts and ends with mentors.

"In college, one of the first science classes I took was a botany course. The professor who taught it would pose unanswered questions, then spend the whole lecture building up to what was known about the topic," said Johnson. "It was the first time I really understood how much we don’t know about the world. That got me very interested in biology and scientific research."

Today, Johnson is director of NRRI’s Center for Water and the Environment, a mentor herself to about 20 scientists and technicians. She remembers back when she was a summer technician, working for pioneering aquatic invertebrate scientist Warren U. Brigham at the Illinois Natural History Survey.

"He really influenced me," she said. "He gave me responsibility for a big taxonomic survey of algae in the coastal areas of Lake Michigan. It was the first time I’d ever been given total responsibility for planning and completing a scientific project. Ironically, after many years of working in streams after that, I’m back now doing research in the coastal zones of the Great Lakes."

After earning a Bachelor of Arts and Science degree in botany from Duke University, Johnson completed a Master’s degree in entomology at the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. More than a decade later she earned her Ph.D. in zoology from Michigan State University.

By 1990, Johnson had become the Center’s associate director, taking the reins of center director in 2009. In her research, teaching and administrative work she reminds lab employees and students to "find someone you respect who will listen to you and help you bounce ideas around."

"I was lucky to have mentors who gave me leeway — enough to hang myself multiple times," Johnson laughed. "I try to give my students and employees the same freedom. If they run into problems, I’m happy to be there, but it’s important to let people explore and make mistakes."