Biography (at time of award presentation, 2009)
Thomas C. Johnson, professor of Geological Sciences and founding director of the Large Lake Observatory, University of Minnesota Duluth, is considered to be the world's leading scientist studying the evolution of large lakes today. In 1981, he left the Twin Cities campus to accept the position of associate professor of Geology and director of Limnology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. During this period, he gained national recognition in paleoclimate research and for his developing research on the East African Great Lakes. During this time, he co-founded the International Decade of East African Lakes (IDEAL), a project with results that brought great benefit to the field of paleolimnology, including significant advances in drilling/coring technology, education and training of U.S. and African scientists and students, as well as a better understanding of the physical dynamics, biogeochemistry, and paleoclimate history of East African lakes.
He then accepted a position as director of the Duke University/University of North Carolina Marine Laboratory, one of the premier oceanographic research centers in the world. During his tenure at Duke, his reputation as a leading limnogeologist grew nationally and internationally. In 1994, he came back to the University of Minnesota Duluth as founding director of the Large Lakes Observatory (hereafter LLO) and professor of Geological Sciences. Within a few years, the LLO was recognized worldwide as the largest multi-disciplinary limnologicial program at any university in the United States and as the premier research center focusing on climate records from the world's great lakes. He stepped down as director of the LLO in 2004 to focus on his research.
His contributions to the body of scientific inquiry are significant. He is credited with over 100 publications, including many in Science and PNAS. Many of his publications are found in some of the highest standard journals in his field such as Deep Sea Research, Geology Bulletin of Geological Society of America, and Limnlogy and Oceanography. One person wrote, "With the now accomplished recovery of long cores from Lake Malawi and with this successful demonstration of the feasibility of such recoveries from the other world's ancient lakes, Professor Johnson's most influential research may still be forthcoming as he leads the interpretation of these unique geological records." The drilling project recovered Lake Malawi sediment records extending back in time over 200,000 years and potentially over a million years from one of the world's deepest lakes.
He is described as an outstanding teacher, advisor, and mentor. One of his former students who went on to establish a distinguished career of his own wrote, "Tom is extremely effective at transferring...first-principles understanding to his students, and moreover, Tom's approach to advising, as well as his demeanor, instills confidence in students, key to nurturing top-notch scientists." In addition to the many students and postdoctoral researchers that he has educated, and the junior faculty he has mentored, he has also directly supervised or advised at least five students from Kenya who obtained their Ph.D. degrees through IDEAL initiatives and numerous other students who went on to obtain their masters degree. He is a member of the Geological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, the Societas Internationalis Limnologiae, and the International Association for Great Lakes Research. He also has served as a member or chair of numerous scientific committees or boards including several National Research Council Committees, the Council of Great Lakes Research Managers, the Steering Committee of the International Decade for East African Lakes, the Board of Directors for the Deep Observation and Sampling of Earth's Continental Crust, Inc., the International Association of Limnogeologists, and the Limnogeology Division, Geological Society of America. He has also served on several NSF panels for Marine Geology and Geophysics, Earth Systems History and Ship Operations. Professor Johnson exemplifies the qualities of a Regents Professor in all respects.