PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Marty Johnston

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Marty Johnston is Assistant Professor & Chair of Physics at University of St. Thomas.

Growing up, I never dreamed that I would be a physics professor, but after catching the physics bug in college and a passion for teaching in graduate school, I find myself teaching physics and loving it. As I looked for a position, I knew from the start that I wanted to teach in an environment where new ideas were welcome and quality work was expected. I found that environment at St. Thomas, arriving in 1995 with the opportunity to start an undergraduate research program in physics. Now I serve as chair of the department, and while many of the details have changed, my overall focus is the same. Teaching is the center of my work. Without it, my time here would serve little purpose. It seems like such an obvious statement, and yet it is easy to forget as you sit in committees, submit grants, review papers and fill out forms, what the point of all the activity is.

In our department, we strive to produce students ready to take on complex and exciting problems by providing them with a broad understanding of physics, cultivating problem-solving skills, and teaching them to effectively communicate technical ideas. Accomplishing these goals takes good teaching. However, it is not enough to just offer high quality courses, it is necessary to have a solid, well-developed and coherent curriculum that looks at the entire student experience. It takes a healthy and engaged department for this to happen. Students need a high degree of personal attention to foster a familial, yet rigorous, educational atmosphere that is conducive to enjoyable and meaningful learning. In the classroom, lively discussion and engaged learning is essential. Outside of the classroom, there must be ample opportunities for students of all levels to participate in research projects during the school year and over the summer. Students engaged in undergraduate research learn the nature of scientific investigation, see how to assimilate diverse scientific topics, plow through technical literature, and develop those sought after problem-solving skills. This is best accomplished in laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art instrumentation that provide students with experiences using current technology as they wrestle with scientific questions. While many programs reserve the research experience for the best and brightest, I believe in an inclusive philosophy that encourages all students to participate. This is only possible, if you provide a wide variety of contemporary research subjects to suitable for students with different backgrounds and abilities.

A healthy program can not be built on any one individual; it must be built on a faculty team, unified in purpose, but with different skills, working together with other departments and the Administration to maintain high ideals for the program and the students. This is not always easy. While you may share a common goal, you don’t always agree on how to attain it. Regular, open and honest communication helps, faculty need the time to work through new ideas in a respectful atmosphere. By having a common goal and a unified approach, a department can build on the strength of its faculty, to produce the quality of graduates needed in an increasingly technical world.