Faculty Focus: Dr. Kenneth Johnson’s Passion Within Two Disciplines
By Ryan Price, The Dateline
Dr. Kenneth Johnson fell in love with geology while an undergraduate Chemistry major at Ohio State University.
“I thought to myself, certainly there has got to be a way of combining geology with chemistry,” said Johnson, Associate Professor of Geology and Chemistry. “So, the next quarter I took a physical geology course and loved it, so I changed my major.”
Little did he know there was an entire discipline of Geochemistry.
Johnson graduated with a bachelor’s in Geology followed by a master’s and a doctorate at Texas Tech University in Geosciences. As a petrologist, he was able to combine his love of chemistry, geology, field work, and the wide-ranging field of geochemistry, which led to successful field work in the Blue Mountains of Oregon and Idaho, as well as research trips to places like the Czech Republic, England, Morocco, and many more, including Antarctica.
In 2002, Johnson moved to Houston for his wife’s career and landed a lecturer position at UHD for the first few years of his employment. Soon after, a tenure-track position became available in 2007 for Assistant Professor of Geology and Chemistry.
As the Geoscience Coordinator for UHD, Johnson takes pride in the Geosciences degree programs that are offered.
“What makes this program unique is the three choices of concentrations while most universities have several hours of electives where you would explore those,” Johnson said. “But in this program, those elective hours have been reduced so that they are geared towards a concentration.”
The program was designed so that graduating students have a greater chance at employment or acceptance to graduate school following graduation. He wanted to create a program where the coursework went “above and beyond” just the general coursework common to most geology programs. As a result, UHD’s Geosciences program has an excellent record of getting its students into competitive graduate programs or into geoscience careers.
What excites Johnson more than anything is the research opportunities that UHD has made available to him and, furthermore, to his students. His even greater point of pride in the program is that students have the ability to conduct their own research.
“It’s real research. It’s not just washing bottles in somebody’s lab. Each student has their own independent research project that’s related to what I am doing,” Johnson noted.
This research takes place in one of the two labs that Johnson runs on campus. These labs include a modern geochemistry lab, where samples are analyzed for their elemental compositions using a plasma spectrometer that students can use to analyze their own samples and collect their own data. Using this instrument, Johnson said that students can analyze not just rock samples but also soil, water, and even coffee These coffee samples, in particular, are part of an exciting project being led by Johnson and two UHD students.
Johnson is a huge fan of coffee. As such, he became intrigued when he learned that one brand of Hawaiian coffee was being sold in volumes greater than what was produced. He speculates that this is a case of commodities fraud, where the coffee being advertised and sold is, in actuality, a completely different coffee. Using his knowledge and skills as a petrologist, alongside his students, Johnson thinks he has discovered a way to unravel this secret.
“Coffees grow on basaltic soil. The basalts from Hawaii are very different from Columbia and that’s very different to east Africa,” explained Johnson about his coffee project. “The basalts are different chemically, so we’re testing the hypothesis that maybe we can discriminate between different tectonic environments just in infused coffees.”
He also believes that because these chemical signatures are so different, he and his students should be able to determine if the coffee being sold is actually what is being advertised. The project not only includes Johnson and his students, but also UHD Professor of Physics Janusz Grebowicz as a part of an interdepartmental research project. The completion of this project will add to the 15 publications authored by Johnson and increase the tally on the numerous published abstract and poster projects that he has been a part of.
When asked about his favorite part of working for UHD, Johnson struggled to select just one.
“I like seeing my students conduct their own research out in the field and collect samples. I enjoy taking students to other labs and using their labs,” said Johnson while drinking hot coffee straight from a UHD-branded mug.
“I don’t know if I can just pinpoint one thing.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.