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The Daily Tar Heel

Jeffrey Johnson, chemistry professor, honored for outstanding work in research

Jeffrey Johnson

Jeffrey Johnson supervises a class. Photo courtesy of Steve Exum.

Distinguished chemistry professor Jeffrey Johnson was recently elected a lifetime fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This distinction, which has been given to notable scientists including Thomas Edison and Grace Hopper, is awarded to scientists who show outstanding work in research, teaching, advocacy or science policy. Staff writer Jordyn Williams spoke to Johnson about the fellowship and his research at UNC. 

The Daily Tar Heel: What fellowship were you awarded?

Jeffrey Johnson: The AAAS is the world’s largest scientific society. It advocates for science, and it recognizes AAAS fellows whose work they deem to have advanced science in one way or another – whether it’s through research, or science policy, or advocacy or teaching. My lab and my research was recognized for advancing a particular area of science called organic synthesis.

DTH: What is your research surrounding organic synthesis?

JJ: Our goal is to create a toolbox for practitioners of medicinal chemistry and drug discovery to use in their research. The goal would be to accelerate the drug discovery process by providing tools. Catalysts, reactants, those are sort of end products of our research that provide access to compounds that either we can’t access now or can only access under very lengthy and inefficient sequences. At the end of the day, we’re interested in developing tools that accelerate the drug discovery process and organic chemistry in general. 

DTH: What does the fellowship itself consist of?

JJ: It is a society of fellows globally. There will be a recognition ceremony in Washington D.C. in February, I believe. There’s also continued participation in the activities of AAAS as a fellow.

DTH: What aspect of the fellowship excites you most?

JJ: I think I’m most excited about what it says about the impact of the work that my research team has done over the years, and also the idea that the things that we’re doing hold considerable promise for the future in the areas that I mentioned.

DTH: Was this fellowship applied for or merit-based?

JJ: Merit-based – I believe there’s a nomination process, but I was not really involved in that.

DTH: How many people were nominated?

JJ: In all the sciences, I believe there were 416 new fellows this year, but out of how many nominations, I don’t know. 

DTH: How will this help you professionally at Carolina?

JJ: There’s a number of other AAAS fellows at UNC, and I think it just reinforces the notion that there’s really amazing science going on all over the UNC campus. It’s nice to be recognized along with a lot of the other people, and that Carolina has gotten this recognition and also are just doing great work in general.

DTH: Will the awarding of this fellowship affect how you teach in your classes?

JJ: I love teaching, and this is a research-driven recognition. I try to bring a fresh approach every time I teach a class. I bring something new, even if I’m teaching a class I’ve taught before. I never teach it the same way twice. So, per se, I don’t think this fellowship will impact directly how I teach, but I try to bring a fresh approach every time I’m in the classroom whether I’m in front of graduate or undergraduate students.


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