Gatepost Interview: Amy Johnston – Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences

What is your role at FSU and what does your job entail?

My official title is assistant professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences. So, even though I’m in the physics and science department, I primarily teach various environmental or earth science-related classes. This semester, I’m teaching two sections of a class called Conversations with the Earth, which is like an introduction to a science class. A lot of people take it as a gen ed for science or it’s one of the first classes that you have to take if you’re going to be a major in our department. I’m also teaching Introduction to Meteorology, a weather and climate class. But my interest is environmental sciences and environmental geology.

What is your professional and educational background?

I graduated undergrad with a biology degree. After graduating, I coached college swimming for a couple of years while I was looking at grad schools. And then I ended up at the University of Massachusetts Boston. They have a grad school for the environment, so I was there for about seven years, where I got my master’s, and then I actually just finished up my Ph.D. last year, and that is in environmental science. Specifically, my research focus was on geochemistry. I looked at paleoclimate reconstruction in the Gulf of Maine. You can look at archaeological samples from sites in Massachusetts and Maine, and at the sites, you can examine the geochemical content of archaeological bivalve shells like clams and oysters, as a way to reconstruct past environmental conditions. So, things like seawater temperature, salinity – various environmental conditions like that – and then using that information as a way to reconstruct climate change over the last 5,000 years or so. That was the primary goal of my graduate school research as I was finishing up grad school last year. It was also my first year teaching at Framingham, so this is my first job right out of school.

What do you like most about working with students?

I think my favorite thing about working with students is the ability to learn from them. Especially at Framingham, everyone’s coming from such diverse backgrounds, which is really refreshing. In terms of making a difference in everyone’s educational experience, I want everyone to learn something from my classes, and especially with the intro classes where they’re not necessarily going to be science majors. If they’re just taking it for a gen ed, I want them to leave my class with some sort of knowledge that they can use in the real world, especially in relation to climate change and environmental sciences, which I think impacts everyone. It’s really nice to interact with and learn from students of all different disciplines and have somewhat of a small impact on their educational life.

What’s something that students might be surprised to learn about you?

I do share sometimes that I’ve coached college swimming, and I think they are surprised with that at times just because when you think of professors, you think that they have a job before being a professor, but not necessarily. I’ve always liked education. So, coaching swimming was a cool thing that I did, and it did give me a chance to interact and work with college students in a different setting. Another cool factor is that I have a twin sister, and she’s a fisheries biologist, so she also does environmental science stuff. So as a whole family, we’re pretty sciency, which is a nice thing to be able to talk about and interact with and learn about my sister’s research as well.

What are some of your hobbies?

I do really love swimming. In general, I try to swim a lot and work out. I really love to cook. So, that’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing in the summers and when it’s nice weather. I’m from Maine originally and so I do enjoy going up to Maine to visit my family and I do a lot of hiking and camping.

How has COVID-19 impacted your job?

It’s made it a challenge, but I’ll say it’s a good challenge. Having only taught at Framingham two years, COVID has been half of the time I’ve been teaching. And so, it really made me rethink how to teach classes and become better at adapting to various challenges like that, especially in regard to using more online resources, online tools, remote teaching Zoom – all that stuff. I am glad that I’ve been able to learn a lot of those new skills as a result of COVID, especially so early on in my teaching career.

What advice do you have for FSU students?

I think my advice would be to not be afraid to take classes that they’re interested or passionate in, especially when it comes to science classes. I know they can be a little daunting, but if it’s something that they’re genuinely interested in, I think it’s worth the challenge. I know it can be a little tricky in terms of graduating on time and getting all your credits and classes in. But as part of the liberal arts education, it’s nice to dabble and experience those other subjects, not just the one that you’re going to major in. And so, with that in mind, not being afraid to ask for extra help, and visit their professors during office hours. Get to know their classmates and professors, so that they have a little class community.