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Jack Johnson Honored as Outstanding Mentor

By Cindy Brauer

Jack Johnson’s genuine love of science and caring commitment to postdocs and graduate students are hallmarks of the mentoring he has provided to nearly 70 junior scientists over his 40-year career as a structural virologist. Now Johnson, the Eldon R. Strahm Professor of Structural Virology at The Scripps Research Institute (TRSI), has been named the 2014 Scripps California Outstanding Mentor.

The award recognizes TSRI faculty who consistently and enthusiastically serve as effective mentors to postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. The winner receives $1,000 to support professional development, training or team-building activities in his or her lab.

“The selection committee evaluated the nominees on a range of criteria, including evidence of effective leadership, job search-related assistance and support of trainees’ goals and skills development,” said Ryan Wheeler, director of the Office of Career and Postdoctoral Services, which sponsors the award with the Society of Fellows and TSRI graduate program. “Professor Johnson’s nomination stood out for the lavish praise offered by numerous letters sent in from around the world. It’s clear that he has made a significant and lasting impact upon all those he mentored.”

Wheeler also noted the selection committee’s difficult task in determining an awardee from among a nominated group of accomplished and deserving faculty members, which included Donna Blackmond, Ashok Deniz, Velia Fowler, Joel Gottesfeld, Michael Oldstone, Bruce Torbett and Andrew Ward.

Johnson said he was thrilled by the honor. One of his goals as mentor is for the student or postdoc to have the freedom to express him/herself at intellectual and creative levels. As such, he seeks new ideas and approaches from all lab members, including the newest among them. “More often than not,” he observed, “the individual develops hypotheses and proposes experiments that never occurred to me, [fulfilling] my dream of adding one and one and getting three.”

Most rewarding, he added, is witnessing individuals fulfill their scientific ambitions. “I love to be shown exciting results that are explained to me by a young investigator,” he said, “and then to have the thrill of saying ‘Wow, we are the only people on earth that know this right now.’ ”

Found throughout the nomination letters from current and past mentees, many now themselves research scientists in academia and industry around the world, are words such as “compassionate,” “role model,” “encouragement” and “patience.” Many described their deep gratitude for Johnson’s advocacy and support of their personal career paths.

Comments included:

“The first thing anyone would notice… is his infectious enthusiasm for science. His excitement at some new data or fresh idea is palpable… [He] encourages us to come to him at any time when we’ve had any developments in our work—no matter how minor… He says ‘This is what all the science stuff is all about. This is the fun bit. That’s the reason why I spend this time doing what I do.’ ”

“Generation after generation, Jack has inspired scientists from all over the world. He has taught us to enjoy science and respect each other... Jack stands [out] for his genuine human and intellectual honesty and his intrinsic ability to communicate difficult concepts in simple words.”

“Jack interacts with us all slightly differently with the ultimate goal of allowing us to develop professional self-confidence and autonomy. This ranges from his tutelage on writing successful manuscripts and grant/fellowship applications to forging mutually productive collaborative relationships.”

“He was… always reminding me that one learns the most when experiments don’t run as they should, and that in troubleshooting, one gains the most knowledge… I consider my time as a graduate student successful due substantially to Jack’s encouragement to ‘Just try it and see what happens.’ ”

“Perhaps the most important advice he has ever provided came when my daughter was just born. He said ‘Having a baby is lot like running a lab—it’s only hard for the first 18 years, so just try and enjoy the ride.’ ‘’

More information on Johnson’s activities, awards and research is available on his faculty page and lab website.


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Professor Jack Johnson (left), Scripps California 2014 Outstanding Mentor, chats with Research Associate Reginald McNulty, one of the 70 young scientists Johnson has mentored. (Photo by Cindy Brauer.)