While still in high school, she was lured by the promise of "extra credit" to develop an after-school project for a science fair, leading to a second project on holographic studies of fungus growth the following year. After the project won a first place in the international contest, Johnson headed for Stanford, where she earned her B.S. and eventually her doctorate in electrical engineering.
That led to a string of successes in academia, where she published numerous research papers, rising to dean of Duke University’s engineering school and then provost of Johns Hopkins University. Along the way, she also co-founded several start-up companies and earned over 120 US and foreign patents, including one that eventually led to the invention of the 3-D glasses used to view such movie hits as 2009’s Avatar, selling the company on International Women’s Day in 2007.
Her latest venture will generate and store electricity from hydropower.
Initiating an effort at the Department of Energy that convened a 2010 meeting with top women in energy, government and academia from around the world, Johnson is not just an inspirational role model but also an ardent advocate of women leading the way in clean energy.
Citing a study by the National Science Foundation, Johnson says “women will stay in a technology career when they’re allowed to affect a social issue,” so the challenge is to “mix humanities and social sciences and engineering to make a difference in the world.”
The opportunities in clean energy abound for women, she added, pointing out that engineers, economists and sociologists, among others, are all needed to bring about a shift to clean energy. And in the next decade or so, more trained professionals will retire -- opening new paths for the next generation.
What’s more, she insists, to face increasingly complex world issues, including the economy, security, health and the environment, the U.S. will need to develop the intellectual capital of currently underrepresented resources, including minorities and women.
Getting back to that light bulb, energy efficiency and rebuilding the country’s economy, Johnson added: “Those energy jobs also pay well.
Image CC licensed by Flickr user menesis.
Women's Network for a Sustainable Future presents a panel discussion with business experts on "Sustainability, Social Media -- and the Bottom Line" from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. on May 13 at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Details are available at www.wnsf.org.