Carbon Molecules and Pink Flamingos

Dr. Jeff Johnson is an award-winning Hope College chemist with a complex sounding research focus — carbon-carbon single bond activation and the development of transition metal catalyzed methodologies.

Dr. Jeff Johnson, Associate Professor of Chemistry and 2015 Dreyfus Scholar-Teacher Award Winner

Yet, here is the simplest fact of the matter: Dr. Johnson’s research and teaching agenda— for which he is a winner of the prestigious 2015 Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award — is creative, ambitious and elementally fun too.

You see, in Dr. Johnson’s laboratory, carbon-containing molecules AND an inflatable pink flamingo can effortlessly cohabitate without pretense or hesitation. Both are indicators of a researcher and teacher serious about organic molecular demolition and Hope student education.

“Oh, the flamingo is a holdover from Aloha Day a couple years ago,” Dr. Johnson confides, standing next to his lab’s experimental mascot. “Each summer I encourage the students to have a theme week, and they can decorate their desk area and dress up for the themes as well. There is still serious chemistry going on, of course, but this gives them a chance to have some fun, too.”

Welcome to Dr. Johnson's office.
Welcome to Dr. Johnson’s office.

Mind you, it’s not that an intensive, 10-week, 50-hour-per-week summer research program isn’t fun in and of itself. Sometimes you just need a pink flamingo around to lighten the mood.

The hard, fun work in Dr. Johnson’s lab centers around the development of new methods of taking a variety of larger, organic molecules and chopping them down. This is done with the potential of testing those lopped-off parts for biological activity. It’s a very difficult and intricate process that could eventually have application in the pharmaceutical and agrochemical worlds, for instance.

“Stable bonds are why you and I exist, right? That’s why we don’t turn into blobs. So what we are trying to do is find ways that we can break these stable bonds. That’s the carbon-carbon activation part… What our method has the promise of doing is taking a complex structure and chopping off little parts of it that then can be tested (for future application).”

More than 50 students have come alongside Dr. Johnson in his lab since he arrived at Hope in 2007, with (another) celebrated Dreyfus award in tow (for faculty start-up). Since then he’s accumulated more than $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the American Chemical Society, and of course, the Dreyfus Foundation. A number of those 50 students have advanced onto present their findings at national conferences or co-authored articles in professional journals as well.

“We have future physicians, researchers, teachers and even business managers working right alongside each other. I’ll take anyone who is interested in the research and find a spot for them.” — Dr. Jeff Johnson

And in a show of both fondness and pride, Dr. Johnson displays eight years’ worth of Hope student-researchers’ group photos in his office, very near those of his three young children, a remembrance of the bonds made in relationships if not in carbon.

“It can be a madhouse in here with 12 students working together,” he says. “But it’s great because I have an open-door policy. We have future physicians, researchers, teachers and even business managers working right alongside each other. I’ll take anyone who is interested in the research and find a spot for them.” (But they do at least have to have taken General Chemistry, though most have completed Organic Chemistry as well.)

PropProject
Dr. Johnson’s “Propose a Project” board

While Dr. Johnson guides his students’ researching process, he gives them room to lead, too. His student-researchers can “propose a project” and hash it out on a dedicated whiteboard. Like his use of theme week, Dr. Johnson puts an emphasis on student creativity and engagement to enhance excitement and dedication. The former musician in him (he played the trumpet and tuba through college) can’t help but give students the chance to appreciate the sound of carbon molecules falling to pieces.

“I want my students to get an appreciation of the process (of research),” says Dr. Johnson, who also regularly teaches courses in organic and inorganic chemistry. “In classroom labs, our experiments are designed to work. But as soon as you get into research, it doesn’t work. Well, most of the time it doesn’t work. And it’s the not working that teaches students just as much as the things that do work. Learning how to take ‘failure’ and turn around and design a new experiment and gain from that — that is my overarching priority and philosophy in research education.”

That and it’s okay to have a pink flamingo, too.

Dr. Jeff Johnson is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at Hope College.