Alumni Profiles Series: Lewis Johnson

 June 12, 2024

Lewis Johnson received his bachelor’s degree in physics (magna cum laude) from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He received his doctorate in physics from Duke University, where he researched the development and applications of free-electron lasers, synchrotron radiation sources, and X-ray spectromicroscopy under Professor John Madey. He later proceeded to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as a postdoctoral research associate working on soft X-ray microscopy and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography. He is now a professor of physics at Florida A&M University (FAMU). He has co-authored over 40 scientific papers and conference proceedings and raised and managed more than $20 million in research funding. Lewis is the Associate Provost for Strategic Initiatives and is responsible for aggressively developing and executing frameworks to improve Florida A&M University’s Performance-Based Funding metrics. He oversees various strategic initiatives to enhance the university’s profile and national rankings. Before this role, Lewis held administrative positions such as Assistant Dean of the College of Science and Technology and Assistant Vice President for Strategic Planning. Professor Johnson enjoys photography and video games in his spare time. He is happily married to his wife Kenya Johnson, J.D., who also teaches at FAMU as an associate professor of criminal justice.

Tell me about yourself and how you came to Duke.

I was born and raised in Raleigh, just down the road. I went to Enloe High School before attending North Carolina State University, where I majored in physics. Professors noticed my passion for the discipline and interested me in grad school. At that time, President Ronald Reagan came out with the Star Wars missile defense system, and I was very interested in high-powered lasers. I had an AT&T Bell Labs summer fellowship where I worked with my mentor, Earl Shaw, who worked on free-electron lasers. Initially, I was accepted into Stanford’s Applied Physics program. But as we got further along in the summer, Earl, who knew John Madey, made it clear that I should go to Duke instead. It was the best decision.

What are some of your favorite memories of Duke?

When I arrived, the free-electron lab was nothing but a lab in a shell. So, I got to help build the lab up from nothing. I got to do diverse things like drive a forklift and design whole x-ray beamlines; constructing such a large lab had me doing many different things to keep me busy and engaged. Classes were interesting, but being in the free-electron lab in the early days allowed me to see many things about how large-scale research works. I enjoyed my projects and responsibilities.

The other part of the Duke experience that was most memorable was interacting with the other students. The physics students, as were the black graduate STEM students on campus, were a close-knit group. There weren’t many of us, but we all knew each other and hung out.

In terms of career plans, did you set out knowing that you would be in academia, or were you flexible?

My career can be defined as flexible, keeping many options open. I’ve always been lens-focused (pun intended) on my studies. After attaining my Ph.D., I went to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for my postdoc. While there, I enjoyed the California vibe and my X-ray lithography and microscopy work. For my lithography work, I had to go back and forth between Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore; there was a different vibe at Livermore, but it was still cool, though a “little” higher security than Berkeley.

So, getting close to the end of the postdoc, you start thinking about where you’ll see opportunities, and, at that time, most people went to Intel. When I had six months to go, part of me considered planning to continue as a staff scientist at Advanced Light Source. One day, I was walking down the hall, and Keith Jackson (another mentor and Black scientist at the lab) said, “Hey, I want you to meet somebody.” Dr. Joe Johnson, a professor at Florida A&M University, was hiring new faculty members. He asked if I would come and check it out. They put me on the plane, and the next thing I knew, I was in Tallahassee. I always told him what got me was the fact that he took me into a group meeting, and it was a group meeting of all Black folks talking about physics. My mind was blown. I decided then to become a faculty member at FAMU.


What are your favorite parts of your job?

Working with students is my favorite part of being a faculty member. Whether in the classroom or the lab, it is so satisfying when that spark of insight and the beauty of physics comes alive in them. My biggest accomplishment is the academic success of the students I have mentored. I have produced four Ph.D. students, several graduate students at the master’s level, and a host of undergraduates— I’m so proud of them all. And now, in administration, I get to help students in other vital ways through strategic initiatives designed to support them throughout their matriculation at FAMU.

So you are transitioning into administration?

I would not say transitioning; I have been in administrative roles for 10+ years. However, I still like maintaining strong ties to my faculty roots whenever possible. And physics is still in my blood.

Do you plan on one day becoming the president of a university?

I am proud to be an associate provost. I don’t have plans to become a university president. My work now is gratifying and tremendously supports leadership in making the difficult decisions required to keep the university running efficiently and effectively in this ever-changing milieu of higher education.  

Do you miss your lab?

I keep my lab going. I still have grants and a postdoc. And I still mentor students. If I’m not in my administrative office, you can find me in the lab at least once a week.

What is the best career advice that you’ve ever received?

Some students say, “I’m getting my Ph.D. in astrophysics, and this is what I want to do.” So, they get their Ph.D. in astrophysics and then pursue a career in astrophysics. The second type says, “I am getting my Ph.D. in astrophysics, and with my Ph.D. in astrophysics, I know how to do a lot of stuff.” While doing astrophysics, you became an excellent coder, a master at machine learning, an expert machinist, etc. As a Ph.D. in physics, you develop excellent analytical skills which can be used to attack thousands of problems. People often see physicists as narrowly focused individuals, but I say there is nothing we can’t do. For example, a former classmate graduated with his doctorate to become a video game designer.

Thus, the best career advice that I ever received (and can offer to future physicists) was to keep myself open to discover the many possibilities that a career in physics has to offer because they are limitless.


Kene Anumba headshot
Kene Anumba

Ph.D. student, Physics

Kene Anumba is a second-year Ph.D. student in physics, where he currently works with Professor Dan Scolnic. His research focuses on Type Ia Supernovae (SNe) Cosmology, developing simulation-based methods to understand the expansion history of the universe and measurement of distances across cosmic time. He holds a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Prior to his doctoral studies at Duke, he worked as an enterprise architect for a financial services firm. Additionally, he is an involved member of the Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG). In his leisure time, he enjoys playing the piano and has a keen interest in traveling.