Not your typical professor

When Gwynn Johnson leaves home each morning for the Portland State campus, she always tells herself she is going to school, not to work.

When Gwynn Johnson leaves home each morning for the Portland State campus, she always tells herself she is going to school, not to work.

Johnson, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at PSU, has been going to school practically every day since she started kindergarten at the age of four, and she considers herself a lifetime learner.

“I would not be happy anywhere else,” Johnson said. “I am learning from the students just as much as they are learning from me. And when I see students that strive to learn, I get inspired and think that’s the reason I’m a professor.”

Now, a $394, 000 research grant courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will allow Johnson to continue doing what she loves outside the typical classroom setting.

Along with five of her students, Johnson, who specializes in environmental engineering, will perform research over the next three years that could potentially identify pollutants in drinking and recreational water.

The research began Sept. 15, and focuses around how heavy metals, such as zinc, iron, mercury and aluminum, from “biosolids” can be transported to groundwater.

Biosolids are the remnants after raw sewage has been processed at treatment plants, according to Johnson. Biosolids are comprised of pathogens, a disease-causing agent full of bacteria and viruses, and heavy metals that come from a variety of consumed foods and extremely small particles called colloids.

Instead of sending biosolids to landfills, they are often used as a substitute for fertilizers on fields because of their high-nutrient value. Johnson’s research will center on whether the colloids found in biosolids are able to transport the heavy metals to groundwater, thereby contaminating it.

Field sites for Johnson’s research are located in both Oregon and Arizona, because the difference in soil and climate provide a basis of comparison.

“The research is coming along well right now,” Johnson said. “The hardest part will come in the second year of research.”

Investigating serious research questions are not Johnson’s only delight. The professor, who has been at Portland State since 2002, also loves asking questions that others usually perceive as strange or weird.

“One of my favorite things to ask people when I first meet them is do you eat to live or live to eat,” Johnson said. “Usually the person says they eat to live, then I know we will not get along very well.”

Johnson said she lives to eat, and absolutely loves the tasty, wide variety of food in Portland. Prior to Portland, Johnson had spent her entire life living between Florida and Arizona, where she says the food does not compare to what the Rose City has to offer.

“The restaurant scene here is out of this world,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, she is not the prototypical engineer. She said most engineers are not recognized as being people persons, though she enjoys interacting with and thinking about people all the time.

Another goofy question Johnson said she likes to pose to people is whether they think about people who are smiling around them–that is, if they wonder what makes a person smile.

“I like to ask people if they ever stop and wonder why that person is smiling or that homeless man is standing on the street corner asking me for money,” Johnson said. “It’s a simple question, but it makes people think.”

Johnson said that interacting with students is one of the main reasons she is a professor. She said she always tries to stress thinking outside the box, which is completely different than the way traditional engineers are supposed to think.

“She definitely has a lot of energy in the classroom, and she expresses it with students,” said Robert Annear, a research associate and guest lecturer for Johnson. “She also brings a good mixture of experience to class.”

Johnson grew up Palm Springs, Fla., where she obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Florida. She furthered her education at the University of Arizona, obtaining her doctorate degree there before moving to Portland to teach.

Johnson has a four-year-old son named Gabriel, and said she is passionate about muscle cars and football. She said she has always been mechanically minded, and when she looks at something, she immediately wants to know how it is put together.