Congratulations 2014 Botany in Action Fellow, Dr. Anna Johnson!

by Lorren Kezmoh

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Pursing graduate research of any kind is no small feat, that is why we want to congratulate Dr. Anna Johnson, one of our 2014 Botany in Action Fellows, on the successful completion and defense of her doctoral work! Dr. Johnson attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for graduate school, and was conducting her graduate research out of the Geography and Environmental Systems department at UMBC. Anna studied the diversity of plants found in urban environments, and how those plant communities vary from location to location within cities, given previous land uses and current human management; with the majority of her work centering on the ecology of vacant lots.

Dr. Johnson shared her thoughts with us on the completion of her dissertation below:

“I began my PhD training in the fall of 2009. Just last week, I finally defended my dissertation, on the ecology of vacant lots in Baltimore, Maryland. My graduate advisor reminded me many times over the last five and a half years to think about my PhD as a marathon, not a sprint. Now that I have completed both a PhD and a marathon, I am inclined to agree with him.There was a moment around mile 20 of the one and only marathon I ran when I realized that it hurt just as much to walk as to run, and that I might as well keep running since it would then be over sooner. I definitely hit that same “wall” around the equivalent of mile 20 of my PhD (that would be about a month before I turned in my dissertation to my committee…). I did, however, feel a real sense of accomplishment at the end of both events, like I had done something large and substantial that couldn’t be dismissed or taken away–just finishing was an accomplishment! 

DSC_0223Also for both the marathon and the PhD, the actual race was less of the point than the training leading up to the final event. By the time I got to my dissertation defense, I realized that there wasn’t all that much additional preparation to do since I had been doing it for years. Becoming an “expert” is a long, slow process. Maybe the point of a defense at the end is just to remind yourself that you actually were going somewhere after all, even if it was just to a somewhat arbitrary race or afternoon event.

I am happy to say that my dissertation defense became more of a celebration of my training than a final test or proof of competence. For the first time in my career, I was given an entire hour to prepare and present a presentation about my research. The presentation was scheduled as part of a seminar series in the engineering department at my university. My audience was made up of my lab-mates (all quite familiar with my work), members of my interdisciplinary geography department, the regular attendees of the engineering talks, plus my family and friends, which included my grandfather, parents, husband and even the Lieutenant I worked with at the women’s prison. 

Often, science can seem like a pile of facts that we just continue to add to. Given my mixed audience, I did my best to strike a balance between presenting data-driven research results and also placing them into a context that was comprehensible and interesting as a story. Thanks in large part to the Phipps Botany-in-Action program, I’ve actually given more presentations in the last year that are geared towards the general public than I have given presentations for strictly academic audiences. I think this really worked in my favor when I put together my defense seminar. By taking the extra time to try to make the presentation a pleasant experience for the audience, I think I ended up making it much more enjoyable for myself as well. I’ve always believed that good science can (and should) be accessible on some level to almost anyone. Now that I have my doctorate, I am happy to say that I still feel this way, and that I look forward to continuing to engage diverse audiences in the practice and outcomes of science throughout the rest of my career.”

If you would like to learn more about Anna’s research experiences, as well as her involvement with Phipps, head on over to her Botany in Action blog! And, congratulations again Dr. Johnson!

Photos provided by Dr. Anna Johnson and Science Education.

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