Professor Sarah Johnson (STIA) discusses space exploration, research and the importance of balance
Space, the final frontier. On Thursday, March 14, students gathered at the Red House for the fourth Dinner Series event of the semester got a glimpse into the vast expanse of the universe beyond our planet and the emerging public and private research that is trying to understand it.
Professor Sarah Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and the Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) program, has long been fascinated by space. Where some might be intimidated by the vastness of the unknown, Johnson sees an expanse of exciting opportunities to learn more. She and her colleagues participate in a field in which there are no textbooks, because their research (and that of their successors) will be used to write them. In speaking about these truly wild environments, Johnson radiated a certain infectious curiosity and excitement about the pursuit of knowledge.
Professor Johnson has spent time on planetary-science research teams with a diversity of foci, including a stretch of time on NASA’s Mars rover team and a National Science Foundation-funded expedition to Antarctica to study the persistence of life in chemically extreme areas similar to Mars. Her new project, based out of her Lab at Georgetown, similarly focuses on the detection of life on other planets. The difference in this new endeavor, however, is the emphasis on thinking outside the box about what constitutes life, potentially requiring a shift in our already-murky conception of what ‘life’ is. It is an attempt to consider “the truly alien,” she says, adding, “it’s so fun.” To see how Johnson painted pictures of space and spoke about her research was to view science as just that: fun – and awesome in the truest sense of the word.
While much of this Dinner Series discussion centered on Johnson’s experiences in her field, it also dealt with the day-to-day of life on this planet. At this Dinner Series, we were lucky to meet Johnson’s two (very cute) bright and outgoing children. They shared the group’s collective excitement about both their mom’s area of study and the pie we dug into towards the end of the evening (it was Pi Day, after all). It isn’t often that we are reminded of professors’ lives outside their time on Georgetown’s campus, but that night we received glimpses of the many other aspects of her identity that Johnson embraces: a scientist, a Goldwater, Truman, and Rhodes scholar, a former White House Fellow, a realist, a philomath, a mother. This Dinner Series was a testament to the fact that for many in the space of higher education, wearing a multitude of hats isn’t so much familiar as it is a way of life.
In truth, it was a night of worlds colliding and the mediation of identity when that happens. When we look towards space, how do we go about bringing order to our exploration of that massive starlit expanse? How do we define or redefine what it means to be ‘alive’? When we look to ourselves, how do we deal with questions of our time, attention and energy, and furthermore, decide what to divide those forces between? What does that say about who we are? When speaking about balancing work, family life, and the general experience of wearing a lot of hats, Johnson reminded the group that “you can’t be great at everything all at the same time.”
As students at Georgetown, the acknowledgement that imperfection is an integral and positive part of life felt like a salient thing to hear. Furthermore, if Professor Johnson’s experiences are any indicator, the question of success versus failure is a little bit besides the point anyway. Who we are isn’t so much located in what we do as it is in the meaning we assign to it. Life is far more fulfilling when you can identify why you do something and who you do it for – especially if that something keeps your eyes trained on the stars and loved ones by your side.
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The next Red House Dinner Series will feature NHS Professor Myriam Vuckovic on Monday, April 15th. Students can join the Red House Student Network listserv here to be the first to receive information about signups and stay up to date about all upcoming Red House events. You can also visit our Facebook page for event updates from the Red House.
If you are a faculty member who would like to share your work or join our conversations around contemporary issues in higher education, please email the Red House at firstname.lastname@example.org.