Transy welcomes new professor of physics Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson teaches in Brown Science Center.

Transylvania is welcoming a multitude of new faculty and staff this year. There are a total of five new professors this semester, and over the next month The Rambler will be introducing each of them to the campus. This is a way for the members of Transylvania to become familiar with the new professors as well as to truly welcome them to the Transy community.

Although Stephen Johnson, Assistant Professor of Physics, is new to the Transylvania faculty this year, he is not entirely new to the university. Johnson attended Transylvania and graduated in 2004, as did his wife.

During his time as a student, Johnson had both current physics professor Jamie Day and retired professor Rick Rolfes. Johnson explained that both professors, along with the rest of the Transylvania faculty, impacted the person and educator he is today.

“As much as I lived in BSC (Brown Science Center) at the time, I still loved so many classes in Haupt that I had over there with various English professors. I think the sum total of all of those has really shaped me into who I am now,” said Johnson.

Like many current students, when Johnson first started school at Transy, he was unsure of what he was majoring in. He remembers taking a physics class first semester and actually not doing very well on the first test.

“It was a wake-up call,” said Johnson. “I thought to myself, ‘I can do better than that.’”

So Johnson pushed himself harder and kept taking more physics classes and realized he truly enjoyed the subject. Johnson encourages any current student that is interested in the subject, but might be struggling, to try and pursue it anyway.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but if you really enjoy it, then work hard at it and come see me and come see Dr. Day and we’ll work with you to help you understand it,” said Johnson.

Something that mirrors this advice is a sign in Johnson’s office that says “Physics: No Pain, No Gain.” The sign was previous professor Rick Rolfes’s, but Johnson decided to keep it because of the message it could teach students.

“I thought about taking it down or maybe moving it, but you know I think there’s actually some truth in that so I’m going to leave it,” said Johnson. “Not to scare students, but to make people realize that physics is one of those things that to most people, myself included many times, it doesn’t just come extremely intuitively. You got to put in the work to do well.”

After graduating from Transy, Johnson continued on to graduate school at Vanderbilt University. Johnson explained that while there he did research in applied optical physics and laser material interaction and studied “how light, and specifically infrared light, interacts with polymer systems and organic molecules.” He received his Ph.D. in physics in 2008.

Once he received his Ph.D., Johnson worked on his postdoctoral at the University of Kentucky and focused his research in nanophysics and graphene. Afterwards, he started working at a nanotech company in Lexington. Johnson worked there from 2010 to 2016, but knew he wanted to teach eventually.

“As much as I liked doing that type of fast-paced, cutting-edge research, I just realized I wanted to come back to academics. I guess I’m an academic at heart,” said Johnson. “The one thing I like about academics in general, and I think Transy really epitomizes this, is it’s just a learning environment.”

Johnson described his favorite thing about campus so far as “interacting with the students and knowing that I’m teaching them something and that they’re learning something.”

“It’s a great feeling, it really is,” he said.