Professor retires after 42 years

Colleagues say Ross Johnson’s retirement will be a major loss.

by Mukhtar Ibrahim

A University of Minnesota professor who devoted his career to studying cell communication and pioneering the study of genetics at the University is set to retire.
Ross Johnson spent 42 years in the College of Biological Sciences mainly doing research and teaching biology courses.
When he received his Ph.D. from Iowa State University in 1968, he wasn’t sure how much research and teaching he wanted to do, Johnson said.
He said he had originally considered teaching at a liberal arts college, but when he came to the University, he decided to go the research route after meeting colleague Judson Sheridan, who introduced him to gap junctions — little channels between cells that allow the passage of small molecules.
“There were just a handful of people around the world that were studying in this area,” Johnson said, “and now there are several hundred people around the world doing this kind of work.”
The College of Biological Sciences was only three years old when Johnson arrived, and his department — zoology — was in the College of Liberal Arts before he succeeded in moving it to CBS. Johnson also started the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, which he became head of.
When the University was ranked in the top three research universities in a 2001 University of Florida survey, Johnson was featured in a poster.
It was “good news for the university, and so for me to be involved with that was a joyful experience,” he said. “That was a very happy occasion for me.”
Johnson is known internationally for his work on gap junctions and has done a lot of work in helping to understand the structure of gap junctions and how they allow materials to pass between cells, said Stuart Goldstein, a genetics, cell biology and development professor.
Professors praised Johnson’s commitment to the improvement of CBS and for bringing people together to accomplish common goals.
“He is very thoughtful with people and listens very well,” Goldstein said. “A lot of administrators don’t listen very well. He is a very good listener and very sincere about working with people.”
Johnson said there was a “huge explosion in biology” when he started his research and said he’s still very interested in the field despite his retirement.
“My basic premise is that if you open up the newspaper on any given day, so many stories in the newspaper have a biology component to them,” he said.
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has a distinct biological component to it, Johnson said, adding that, “biology is really impacting so much of our society.”
Johnson recently helped start writing a grant application for Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity, an agency in northern California that works with the homeless and at-risk youth in the community.
“I had a lot of experience with writing grant proposals to different agencies,” he said, adding that helping the agency is “a change of pace for me.”
Genetics, cell biology and development professor Judith Berman said she admires Johnson’s community-building efforts.
“He just did a lot to make our department be a community,” she said.
Johnson, who currently resides in California with his wife and children, will return to the University in the fall for a part-time appointment. He will officially retire next summer.
Johnson said that those beginning research should start by finding an important problem they are interested in.
“If you’re only casually interested in a problem, you are not going to be very motivated to work hard on it,” he said. “But if you are really drawn to the problem, you are passionate about it, it will serve you well.”
Goldstein, who worked with Johnson in the zoology department and has known him for more than 30 years, said Johnson’s retirement will be a loss to the University.
“But he certainly deserved to retire,” Goldstein said. “He has done a lot of good work.”