National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Kristina Johnson’s work, developed with NIHF Inductee Gary Sharp, is part of the reason 3D movie technology, rear projection systems for televisions and digital mammograms exist.
She’s also helped develop technology to produce faster screenings for cervical cancer, and she is considered a pioneer in optoelectronic processing and color management systems.
Behind Johnson’s varied and successful career lies her unwavering motivation to inspire others and continuously help make the world a better place.
“There is nothing like coming up with something that will make people happy or live a better life, and you can do that as engineers and scientists,” Johnson remarked while speaking in honor of her 8th-grade primary science teacher Charles Bottinelli. “I believe all of us can be leaders.”
Johnson was born in 1957 in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in Denver, Colorado.
Her interest in both science and activism began in school, where she was president of the environmental club. Additionally, she won her city, state and placed 2nd in the international science fair.
Johnson also excelled in athletics. She played on the boy’s lacrosse team in high school and went on to found the women's club lacrosse team at Stanford University.
Johnson graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1981. And, despite receiving the devastating diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 22, Johnson persisted and earned her Ph.D. at Stanford in 1984. She was awarded a NATO postdoctoral fellowship at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
A History of Innovation
Johnson says she is “happiest when inventing.” A prolific inventor who holds more than 100 U.S. and international patents and patents pending, she has been widely recognized for her work in “smart pixel arrays,” which are applicable to a wide variety of uses in displays, pattern recognition and high-resolution sensors in cameras.
Johnson conducted much of her work on birefringent materials, which are materials whose refractive index depends on the polarization and propagation direction of light, in her time as a professor at the University of Colorado (CU). While at CU, she co-founded and served as the CEO of ColorLink, a company that commercialized her color polarizing technology. That company was eventually sold to RealD, which is responsible for the 3D technology used in hundreds of movies today, including “Avatar.”
She has received many accolades for her work, including the 2008 John Fritz Medal, which is considered the most prestigious award in engineering. Among other innovation greats who have received the award, like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, was George Westinghouse — with whom Johnson’s grandfather worked as an engineer in the 1920s. Most recently, she won the inaugural Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Mildred Dresselhaus Medal.
Johnson has sat on numerous boards and has co-founded several companies. In 2007, she was elected a fellow of SPIE, an international society of scientists and engineers working in optics and photonics.
A Champion for Education
Johnson’s time as an innovator has run parallel to her extensive career in education. In 1999, she became the dean of the school of engineering at Duke University. Then, in 2007, Johnson became the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University.
Johnson took a brief hiatus from her education positions from 2009 to 2010, when President Barack Obama appointed her to serve as the Under Secretary of Energy.
In 2017, Johnson became the 13th chancellor of SUNY. Then, in June of 2020, Johnson stepped down from that position to become the 16th president of The Ohio State University — the second woman in the university’s history to assume the title.
Throughout her career, Johnson has been a champion for women. The Women’s Sports Foundation, ESPNW and Women in Cable Telecommunications included her on the “40 Years of Title IX: 40 Women Who Have Made an Impact” list. But above all, Johnson has been a champion for innovation.
As she told a group of 350 middle school girls during a school assembly: “If you want to help people and change the world, stay in science and math. That will give you the tools in this ever-quantitative world to do this.”
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