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Focusing on IT women faculty


Nancy Johnson received an IDEA Grant to photograph women faculty in IT

By Adam Overland

Paige Novak 170
Paige Novak, associate professor of civil engineering: "I am an environmental engineer, focused on figuring out how to clean up our surface and groundwater and the sediment in lakes and rivers. Research is one of the most creative things one can do. It's also incredibly rewarding to work on problems that have the potential to improve people's lives as well as the environment."

November 24, 2009

In a college dedicated to the advancement of technology, to--as its slogan goes--inventing tomorrow, an upcoming photography exhibit by an Institute of Technology (IT) staff member captures in stark black-and-white photographs what holds constant as science and technology change our world—the people behind the change.

Using a purely mechanical medium-format camera she's had for more than 25 years, Nancy Johnson, a communications specialist in the institute's department of mechanical engineering, has created "Inventive Women: Portraits of Scientists and Engineers from the University of Minnesota." The exhibit opens Nov. 27 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul (opening reception, Dec. 1, 5-8 p.m.).

Johnson has nothing against digital or color photography—she uses both in her job—but in the exhibit featuring 31 profiles of IT women faculty, she wanted to emulate the style of August Sander’s well-known black-and-white photo portraits. "I wanted [the photographs] to be somewhat intimate,” Johnson says. “I try to be close and show [the subject] in their environment," says Johnson. She develops each photograph herself in a darkroom she rents out of a warehouse in Lowertown St Paul. "These are not glamour shots,” she says. “They just look like your everyday moms and cousins and aunts." In short, they look like everyday people. Every photograph in the exhibit also includes a framed statement written by the featured faculty.

Image language

Photography is a language the world understands, and Nancy Johnson has traveled the world. She took time off from pursuing a degree in the U's College of Liberal Arts to live briefly in Paris in the late '70s. There, her love for photography and travel blossomed. She returned to take a clerical position at the U, where she used the Regents Scholarship to finish her degree in art with an emphasis on photography. But the travel bug bit her again. She quit her job and took to the skies, eventually traveling through Asia, Australia, New Zealand, India, Indonesia, Nepal, and many more. "I got on a plane and said goodbye and landed in Tahiti and thought, 'I've made the right decision.' It was December when I left," she says.

Statement of Liliya Williams, professor in physics and astronomy

Astrophysics is my chosen field, one I have been fascinated with since I was a teen. Though my specific interests have been evolving during the last fifteen years, I was always drawn to things that have little to do with everyday experience. These days most of my research is on dark matter. I search for ways to detect and characterize it using astronomical observations and theoretical reasoning, both of which contribute to our understanding of dark matter. A happy byproduct of my work over the years has been my ever-growing appreciation for the beauty of physics.

View slideshow: "Inventive Women: Portraits of Scientists and Engineers from the University of Minnesota".

At one point during her travels, when Johnson found herself in Australia and down to her last $80. She got a job on a shrimp boat in the South Pacific. While she did find herself at sea for weeks at a time, unlike TV's Deadliest Catch the waters were warm and calm, and dinner consisted of shrimp and scallops every night. The money she earned on those little crustaceans allowed her to coast through Asia for another six months. Eventually, photographs from those 18-months of travel were featured in one of her first public exhibits, held in 1994. She's since had many shows throughout the region.

Coming home

When Johnson returned from her extensive travels, she again took a job at the U, where for 18 years she put her newly refined skills as a photographer to work for Media Resources (then a department of the College of Continuing Education). In an early project, she was tasked by the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources to photograph women in agriculture around the state.

That instilled in her a trend that is seen in her new exhibit. The project began when she was awarded a March 2008 IDEA Grant, established by the Office of the Vice President and Vice Provost for Equity and Diversity, for her proposal to photograph women faculty in IT. She said she chose the program because the scope was manageable (there were only 39 women faculty in IT at the time) and there was a need.

"Although I don't have an axe to grind,” Johnson says, “it's been a tough road for women in IT. But attitudes have changed. One of the goals of IT is to increase the number of women faculty and women students, and I thought it would be a good way to get young women to think, 'Maybe I can do this too.' But I'm hoping even young boys--anybody that sees the exhibit--can see the things these women are doing, practical things that will improve our world and health."

She also wanted to host the exhibit off campus, so she approached the Minnesota History Center. "I realize there are many people who don't know what it looks like to be in a lab. I'm hoping young people will be intrigued," she says.

Johnson’s exhibit will appear in conjunction with the exhibit "Ben Franklin: In Search of a Better World." It ties in, she says. "Franklin was an inventor. He's the old, dead, white guy. And now you have all these women alive today who are inventing in some form or another, doing great things."


IDEA Grants

The University of Minnesota IDEA (Innovation, Diversity, Equity, and Achievement) Grants Program seeks to infuse equity and diversity into every aspect of the University’s work and operations by funding creative yet pragmatic proposals for projects that address issues of institutional equity and diversity.