Published: Oct. 29, 2020

Pieter T.J. Johnson, new college professor of distinction, focuses on ‘profound threats’ of species invasion and emerging diseases

Pieter T.J. Johnson made a name for himself quickly, landing a Packard Foundation fellowship and a Faculty Early Career Development Program award from the National Science Foundation.

Now he’s been named a 2020 Professor of Distinction in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Pieter T.J. Johnson

Pieter T.J. Johnson

Johnson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, is one of four professors to win this honorific this year. The others are Elspeth Dusinberre of classics, Michelle Ellsworth of theatre and dance, and Katharine N. Suding of ecology and evolutionary biology. 

He is broadly interested in what he calls the “dark side of biology”: the ecology of infectious diseases and invasive species. Johnson notes that both have important consequences not only for individuals and populations, but for entire ecological communities and ecosystem processes. 

Parasites and pathogens are an integrated component of all major food webs, and he notes that understanding how infectious diseases respond to environmental changes requires approaches that embrace the dynamic interactions among hosts, pathogens and other species in a community.

Johnson’s research program is directed at three interrelated focal areas: 

  • The community ecology of infectious diseases in both humans and wildlife;
  • Effective conservation of aquatic communities and ecosystems; and
  • The effects of climate change on host-parasite dynamics.

Johnson answered three questions from the Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine recently, and his responses follow:

Question: Your research group focuses on disease emergence and species invasions; if you were to briefly tell an audience of high-school students why they should care about your work, what would you say?

Answer: Species invasions and emerging diseases are two of the most profound threats facing both wildlife conservation and human society. Both are accelerating in frequency and notoriously difficult to control, often leading to substantial economic as well as ecological costs. 

Because humans, domestic animals and wildlife often share pathogens, these topics are further relevant to our very survival. The field of ecology offers opportunities and approaches to understand interactions among species and with the environment with the aim of managing or preventing such threats. 

I am a believer in looking for ways to have teaching and research synergistically strengthen one another."

Q: You’ve been recognized as both an exceptional teacher and outstanding researcher (e.g., with the Hazel Barnes Prize); what advice would you give to faculty members who are stronger in one of those areas than the other?

A: I am a believer in looking for ways to have teaching and research synergistically strengthen one another. This strategy has a long and successful history in our department, and I benefited greatly by watching and adapting the examples of others. 

Too often research and teaching are portrayed as tradeoffs against one another, particularly to new faculty, whereas I've always found teaching makes me a better researcher and vice versa. This is one of the great strengths of a research university like CU, where students can be involved in—rather than simply learning about—discoveries in the world around them. 

So, my advice, if any, is to intentionally blur the line between teaching and research and embrace the resulting synergy. This has probably never been more important than during the crisis we face today, for which remote learning challenges the engagement of students and instructors alike.

Q: The title “professor of distinction” is an honor reserved for scholars and artists of national and international distinction who are also recognized by their college peers as teachers and colleagues of exceptional talent; what is your reaction to winning this award?

A: Shock mostly. As the shock and disbelief receded, they've been replaced by a combination of muted excitement and a healthy sense of "imposter-syndrome." I am grateful to my colleagues and wish it were easier to share both our highs and lows together, beyond the confines of a computer screen. 

My deepest thanks to those who—in a time when it's so much easier to focus inward—took it upon themselves to nominate, review, and select candidates for this honor.

The newly named professors of distinction will give presentations on their research and scholarly work in spring 2021. Details about those presentations are coming.