When you’re working at a fine scale, says Theresa Jo Johnson, it’s important to keep sight of the big picture. Theresa has always been fascinated by the carbon cycle, by the concept of trees producing the oxygen that keeps us all breathing. Her research is contributing one small piece to the big picture of carbon cycle science. But she also sees her scientific career in a broader context, influencing other minority students to enter the natural sciences, and move beyond their barriers toward the highest ranks of the profession.
Theresa is this year’s winner of the Minority Group Graduate Student Pipeline Support Program. She is pursuing her master’s degree in forest ecology, with a research project on the response of soil respiration to environmental conditions. The fellowship will afford her a second season of data collection, and the chance to promote her work at upcoming national conferences.
Theresa’s interest in forest/atmosphere coupling developed during four summers as an undergraduate protégé in a National Center for Atmospheric Research program called SOARS (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science). She completed three separate studies on biosphere/atmosphere interactions during those intensive 10-week sessions. During one session, she traveled to Brazil as part of a team measuring ozone profiles in the Amazon rainforest.
“I’d been studying forestry at Humboldt State University, but the program was largely management-oriented,” she says. “I found I wasn’t as interested in the economic aspects of how to run a productive forest as I was in the conservation and ecological aspects. SOARS opened me to the idea of going on to graduate school in the field of forest science.”
Theresa’s SOARS mentor, Dr. Thomas Windham, was a great inspiration to her, but he was not her first role model. Looking back, Theresa recognizes a number of people who encouraged her to reach for her dreams. She remembers a woman forester whom she job-shadowed for a day, and a high school science teacher who urged her to apply for the forestry program at HSU. In undergraduate school, Theresa joined the Indian Natural Resource Science and Engineering Program’s student club, working into leadership roles and after college, serving as a recruiter for the group. Now she takes every chance she gets to talk to young Native Americans and Hispanics, her enthusiasm giving them the confidence to consider higher education in the natural resource sciences.
“I get so excited when I find people who have the passion and the potential for this field,” she says. “I’d like to think that someday, someone’s going to remember me and think, ‘She was the one who got me started. She was my inspiration.’”
Theresa is a strong communicator, and won the 2001 undergraduate poster award
in ecology, environmental, geological, and atmospheric sciences at the Society
for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) national
conference. She looks forward to expanding her teaching skills as she works
toward becoming a researcher and public educator.