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Anthony M. Johnson

Dr. Anthony M. Johnson is Director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Photonics Research (CASPR), Professor of Physics and Professor of Computer Science & Electrical Engineering at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). He is a Fellow of the Optical Society of America (OSA), American Physical Society (APS), American Association for the Advancement of Science, African Scientific Institute, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, as well as a Charter Fellow of the National Society of Black Physicists. He has served as President of the OSA, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Optics Letters, and is considered a trailblazer in the use of optical fibers to generate ultrashort pulses of light. His research has helped us to better understand processes that occur in ultrafast time frames of 1 trillionth of a second or less. Ultrashort pulses of light have been used to help understand the physics of how many things work and have been used to address technical and logistical challenges in medicine, telecommunications, homeland security, and have many other applications that enhance contemporary life.

Anthony M. Johnson

But it was an experience Johnson had as a young researcher that, in a period of less than a minute, stands out in his mind as one of his most pulsating. It was the early 80s while he was working at Bell Labs as a member of technical staff, and he had been nominated to join an OSA committee by his Department Head, Chuck Shank (who later became Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). At the first meeting of this committee, Johnson recalls "a member came over and asked me to serve him coffee." Johnson, who is African-American, responded that he wasn't there to serve coffee. Although he found the incident rather irritating, he says "it gave me pause and conviction, and I resolved that it would never happen to me again... [In fact,] it made me more determined to be a strong contributing member of the optics community..."

The encounter later inspired Johnson to mentor other underrepresented scientists, and he has since also helped sponsor women and minority student programs in APS, OSA, and other organizations. "It's crucial to encourage kids from an early age to study physics", he says. "Students need to see underrepresented minorities and women doing excellent science." Johnson is pleased that the laser, given its many other uses, is a dazzling, sexy instrument that appeals to young people and entices them to become scientists. "I'm still very excited about being able to build and use [the laser] to impart knowledge to students, ostensibly changing their perspectives and ultimately their lives. Teaching young people is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work."

Johnson grew up in Brooklyn, NY and had planned on studying math or chemistry while he was in college. But a talented high school teacher steered him in the direction of physics. He received his BS (Magna Cum Laude) in the subject from Polytechnic Institute of New York and his PhD from City College of New York (City University of New York) in 1981. He conducted his thesis research at Bell Labs under the Cooperative Research Fellowship Program (CRFP) for Minorities. After graduation, Johnson remained at Bell Labs for 14 years before leaving to serve eight years as the Chair of the Department of Physics for the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He was actively recruited to join UMBC in 2003 as Director of CASPR.

Johnson, like most laser pioneers, is pleased about the future of the device. When asked where the laser might go next, he responds with a laugh "Where isn't it going? The laser is ubiquitous...Every day we find new uses for it." He envisions that we are getting ever closer to laser fusion (which by the way uses ultrashort intense pulses of light).

Lately, Johnson has focused his attention on the use of lasers for environmental and health purposes. He serves as the Deputy Director of an Engineering Research Center sponsored by the National Science Foundation called Mid-InfraRed Technologies for Health and the Environment, or MIRTHE. Headquartered at Princeton University, it is a collaboration of physicists, engineers, chemists, environmental and bio-engineers, and clinicians from City College of New York, Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, Texas A&M University, and UMBC. The center's goal is to research and develop new laser innovations which will allow for the detection of small amounts of trace gases in medical and environmental applications. Using quantum cascade lasers, a type of semiconductor laser that emits light in the mid- to far-infrared, Johnson is contributing to the development of a medical device that would use this light to detect trace amounts of ammonia in a person's breath. This is vital, he says, because higher amounts of ammonia in one's body could indicate liver or kidney dysfunction, a diagnosis of particular relevance since Johnson's wife has recently developed renal failure and was on dialysis before receiving a transplant three months ago. MIRTHE and Johnson are pushing for a cell-phone-sized, laser-driven innovation that will allow patients to learn the status of their health immediately.
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