Published: Jan. 28, 2020

CU Boulder Today recently sat down with 2019 Hazel Barnes Prize winner Pieter Johnson to get his reaction to receiving the largest and most prestigious single faculty award CU Boulder bestows. We also heard about his teaching philosophies and the importance of student involvement in high-impact research. Johnson is a professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

What are your core philosophies in teaching and fostering student learning? 

I view teaching as an interactive process between students and the instructor that should be reciprocally enjoyable for both parties. I expect to learn from my students just as they do from me and, as a result, evolve my teaching style, curriculum and even my research program to reflect that knowledge. Looking back over my time at CU Boulder, I would emphasize three core philosophies that have become central to my view on teaching. 

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Faculty: The deadline for nominations for the 2020 Hazel Barnes Prize is Feb. 28, 2020. Get details.

First and foremost, I strive to get students excited about biology. Helping students discover their inner passion and amazement for biology is, in my experience, the key first step in convincing them why they want to learn the material. Simply put, it’s hard to learn something you find boring. My time in general biology has taught me just how rewarding it can be to inspire students—many of whom are not biology majors—about the marvels of the natural world, whether in their backyards or their own bodies. 

Second, I push students to learn science by doing it. While asking questions is instinctive for students, how we address them as scientists is anything but, and the only way to understand the discipline is by jumping into it. To this end, my lab has put a premium on mentoring undergraduates as they pursue projects of their own. Being a co-director of the EBIO Honors Program and a member of CU’s Honors Council has further allowed me to appreciate the academic caliber and remarkable achievements of our students on their path of scientific discovery. 

And finally, continuous improvements in teaching at any level require careful assessment to evaluate what our students are learning relative to what I think is being taught. Needless to say this is an ongoing challenge and often a moving target.

Why is the intermingling of your research and working with students, including undergraduates, valuable? 

As someone who first got involved in science through an undergraduate honors thesis, I have learned to put a premium on the contributions of student scientists. They are the true definition of cross-disciplinary investigators: mentally flexibly, highly motivated and untethered by job title or inertia, often helping make insightful and inspired connections overlooked by us “professionals.”

In many respects, students represent the intellectual engine of our lab and its research compass. Their ideas and preliminary data often help catalyze new directions for the group as a whole, while the synergies emerging from combining together students from across a range of career levels—undergraduates to postdoctoral researchers—form the cornerstone of reciprocal learning. Within my own lab, nearly all of my papers are published in collaboration with undergraduate or graduate students.

What do you most want your students to take with them from their academic and life experiences at CU Boulder?

Enthusiasm for the biological world, an appreciation of science and an inspired sense of confidence in their own ability to solve applied issues. For me personally, the process of learning to develop and design ways to address unanswered questions is among the most unique and long-lasting form of learning. Opportunities to go beyond the classroom to make their own discoveries, rather than just reading about them, is something we should all endeavor to provide for our students. This is something at which CU excels.

Science engagement programs—including those that help to fund our students or their research—are foundational for allowing undergraduates to address questions that they find interesting, often leading to independent projects, honors theses and other meaningful products. 

What is your hope for the extension of your research for the public good? 

For nearly 20 years, our group has focused on developing an ecological understanding of disease emergence as a prerequisite for intervention. Despite tremendous biomedical advances over the last century, the emergence of new infectious diseases continues to threaten our health, economic productivity and social stability. Even more striking is the observation that humans and wildlife are often under attack by the same or similar pathogens. This reveals that contemporary disease threats—unlike those in our past—often involve multiple host species, vectors or complex transmission pathways. Because parasites and pathogens are integrated components of all major food webs, understanding how infectious diseases respond to environmental changes requires approaches that capture the dynamic interactions among host species, pathogens and other species in a community.

My long-term career goal is to help integrate the fields of disease biology and community ecology and illustrate the benefits of the resulting insights for biological conservation and disease management. Our group therefore works on diseases across tremendous diversity of species and ecosystems, including brain parasites in people, emerging infections on coral reefs, parasites that castrate snails, and flukes that induce deformities in frogs. We further strive to use scientific findings to inform management efforts and communicate through media and outreach venues that reach non-academic audiences (e.g., science documentaries, citizen science platforms and coverage in outlets such as National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, the BBC and The New York Times). 

What was it like to be part of the commencement ceremony back in April, when you were recognized for your Hazel Barnes Prize?

Well, in April I was on a marine research trip in a remote part of Indonesia, so I’d say it felt pretty good! But, in all seriousness, to be selected for the Hazel Barnes Prize was both a tremendous honor and a profound shock. I am humbled to be in the company of its illustrious previous recipients.

What is your favorite thing about campus?

I’d have to say my favorite thing is the students!