Physics Dean’s Medalist shares importance of building a supportive community

By

Dominique Perkins

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Arizona State University physics graduate Holly Johnson is the Spring 2020 Dean’s Medalist for the Department of Physics in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

An award-winning student and researcher, she has received the NASA Space Grant for multiple years, presented at numerous conferences and co-authored three published papers. She looks forward to continuing her research, applying the principles of nanoscience and materials physics to renewable energy and sustainability.

Johnson grew up on childhood science shows like Bill Nye's and developed a natural interest in learning more about the world around her. She knew she wanted to pursue a degree in science, but was initially indecisive about exactly which branch, and she considered a variety of options including math and marine biology. Finally, figuring she could always change later if she wanted to, Johnson decided to start with physics and see where that would lead.

“There's a lot you can do with physics,” she said. “It's incredibly interesting and very challenging, which is something I appreciate.”

Shared vision

For Johnson, an Arizona-native, applying to ASU was a natural choice.

She was accepted into the Sundial Project, a part of ASU’s Early Start Program for incoming students, and she quickly realized she had found what she needed. Beginning with a two-week workshop before the start of Fall classes, the Sundial project is dedicated to building an inclusive and supportive community within the physical sciences. Faculty, undergraduate and graduate students participate in leadership and mentorship programs, career and networking workshops, and practical training in the practice of professional, scientific research — culminating with their first undergraduate research experience.

Being immediately surrounded by a community of peers who shared both her ambitious drive and her excitement and passion for physics made all the difference for Johnson, and it helped her feel right at home.

“If I didn’t experience that, I might not have chosen the way that I had,” she said. “I think a lot of people have this perspective of physics that it's a very solo mission, and that you have to be top of the top, crazy intelligent.”

This perception certainly didn’t line up with Johnson’s personal experience. She worked hard to understand new principles and concepts and continually sought out additional help and perspectives from teachers, mentors and friends.

“This isn't some lofty career that you just choose on a whim, and you're born to do it — you can actually work really hard to be good at it,” she said.

Falling for research

Johnson continued to participate in the Sundial mentorship program, as both a mentee and mentor, as well as the ASU chapter of the Society of Physics Students throughout her undergraduate journey.

In addition to her involvement in organizations such as these, Johnson said she enjoyed spectacular faculty mentors through her undergraduate research experiences.

“That was definitely like the most important part of my undergraduate career was being able to do research and get that sort of hands-on experience doing lab work, and analyzing data presenting at conferences and talking and working with other people,” she said.

Johnson is a member of Department of Physics Regents Professor Robert Nemanich’s research group, which also gave her the opportunity to work closely with Department of Physics’ Anna Zaniewski, associate instructional professional, and Ricardo Alarcon, President’s Professor.

“They are amazing; it was like the holy grail of research experiences,” Johnson said.

She did extensive work in fabricating diamond-based diode detectors.

These fascinating and durable semiconducting devices can detect alpha particles, even when under enormous heat and pressure. Potential applications for this technology range from precision medical radiation to gathering data on the surface of Venus.

“Holly Johnson has made great strides in research on two important projects in our group. She is clearly skilled in experimental science, and she deeply understands the research from the scientific problem to experimental study and to application,” said Nemanich.

“Holly’s research has focused on radiation detectors based on single crystal diamond, where her role in the project was to understand how to make electrical contact to diamond using the microfabrication capabilities at the ASU Nanofab clean room. The detectors, which were tested at the Mayo Clinic proton therapy facility, were able to accurately map the proton beam shape, position and flux, which could be important for determining radiation dose during proton radiation therapy,” he said.

“Holly demonstrates an ability to learn quickly, think independently and collaborate well,” said Zaniewski. “Her technical skills are impressive: she is certified to use a shared clean room facility normally not used by undergraduates. ... She learns each new technique quickly and carefully. She takes detailed notes and is trusted with our most essential samples and research projects.”

Johnson also completed a summer National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, where she worked with organic materials with potential application in solar panels and other sustainability projects.

Throughout her multiple research projects and experiences, Johnson said she truly fell in love with experimental research and enjoys the opportunity to apply physics principles to new challenges and real-world applications. After graduation, she will continue her research journey as a graduate student at Princeton University.

“This is everything that I want to do for the rest of my career,” she said. “I could do research till the end of time, and I would be satisfied because it is so cool.”

Passing on some wisdom

To those beginning their college experience — especially in a demanding field like physics — Johnson recommends finding and building a network of support as quickly as possible.

“These are the things that really make or break your experience,” she said. “I definitely would not have stuck with physics and I definitely would not have finished physics had I not had a network. … There are a lot of hurdles you have to overcome to get to the finish line and graduate.”

Johnson made it a point to form study groups, especially for her most challenging classes. When looking to develop your own network of support, she recommends keeping an eye on your department emails and participating in events and social organizations. And, outside the structure of formal groups, a little initiative is all that’s needed. Johnson recommends talking to your classmates, asking when they are available, and then setting a date and making it happen; having peers and mentors can make all the difference in figuring something out, she said.

“If I had to sit through like every assignment on my own and have like no one to bounce ideas off of or no one to like ask questions with, it would have been impossible,” she said.

Additionally, studying and learning with a group of friends will make the entire experience more fun, she said. One of Johnson’s favorite study tactics was to get together with her classmates and project a movie from her laptop while they worked. Star Wars movies made an appearance more than once.

“Oh, and get some sleep!” Johnson said.