Physics Professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology Elected President of the Optical Society of America
"I've been very fortunate. I never imagined that I would be president of the Optical Society of America," Johnson says. He recalls that at his first OSA committee meeting in the early 1980s, as the only black person present, he was mistaken for a waiter. That may have been understandable, Johnson explains, since in1981, he numbered among one of only four African Americans to receive a Ph.D. in physics that year. There are still only about ten black Ph.D. candidates who annually graduate in the United States with degrees in physics.
Johnson's research area is the speed of light. At NJIT, he is involved in the fundamental research of ultra-fast optical phenomena, processes that occur over a trillionth of a second-or less. Such research is used today for many practical applications. They include the creations of laboratories that can routinely send information over optical fibers at the rate of a trillion bits per second. There are manufacturers that can drill small holes in steel with short impulses of light. And, there are the many uses of lasers in medical procedures such as the short-pulse lasers that can drill into tooth enamel or the ones used by ophthalmologists to correct vision problems like glaucoma.
"Optics is an enabling technology," Johnson says. "The amount of information that can be transmitted over a strand of glass is doubling every nine to 12 months."
The 47-year old Johnson, who is a resident of Freehold, lives with his wife, Adrienne Steplight-Johnson, Ph.D., and their three children, Kimberly, 19, Justin, 18, and Brandon, 15. Johnson spent 15 years in the research division of Bell Laboratories (now Lucent) in Holmdel before being recruited to chair the physics department at NJIT. He received a Bell Labs Cooperative Research Fellowship to pursue his Ph.D. and conducted his doctoral research at Bell Labs while completing the doctoral course work at City College of the City University of New York.
Adrienne Steplight-Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in nursing, was formerly on the Rutgers University faculty. She is vice president of the Greater Freehold National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Johnson's love of research and desire to share knowledge with others led him to NJIT. Now he'd like to expand his department and attract more minority and female students.
He believes that too many young, minority men and women are pressured by their peers to stay away from difficult courses such as math and science. He recalls a recent incident following a high school speaking engagement. After he talked about career opportunities in science, two young African American women quietly approached him with questions. He asked why they waited until after the lecture to speak up. "Their answer was chilling," he says. "They preferred their friends not seeing them express interest."
What can be done? "We need to make science interesting and relevant to the daily lives of students to attract them," Johnson says. "With better, more enthusiastic teachers, you get more students. But we must start early before we lose them."
NJIT is a public, scientific and technological research university
enrolling more than 8,800 students. The university offers bachelor's, master's and
doctoral degrees to students in 80 degree programs throughout its six colleges:
Newark College of Engineering, New Jersey School of Architecture, College of Science
and Liberal Arts, School of Management, Albert Dorman Honors College and College of
Computing Sciences. The division of continuing professional education offers adults
eLearning, off campus degrees and short courses. Expertise and research initiatives
include architecture and building science, applied mathematics, biomedical engineering,
environmental engineering and science, information technology, manufacturing, materials,
microelectronics, multimedia, telecommunications, transportation and solar astrophysics.
Yahoo! Internet Life magazine cites NJIT as a "perennially most wired" university.