Meet Rebecca Johnson
Rebecca Johnson: Outstanding Undergraduate
Sometimes, all it takes is a phone call.
For Rebecca Johnson a phone call from Alton Campbell, associate director of the University Honors Program, to conservation biology professor Lisette Waits set her on the path to a future career in conservation genetics and a series of intensive research opportunities in Idaho, Virginia, Ecuador and Costa Rica.
Rebecca began her undergraduate tenure as a National Merit Scholar majoring in ecology and conservation biology. She’s ending it as this year’s outstanding undergraduate in the College of Natural Resources. Along the way, she’s accrued a string of awards and scholarships, most notably the highly prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and the Udall Scholarship. She will graduate in May with a double major in ecology and conservation biology and wildlife resources. The recent honor from CNR means a lot to her.
“It’s really exciting to me,” she said. “I attended the awards banquet my freshman year. Some of the people who won that year are the people I really looked up to. It’s kind of a sign that I’ve made a mark in the college. It’s meaningful to me to be up there with the other winners. I’m really proud and honored to be counted with them.”
As an undergraduate, Rebecca immersed herself in a broad range of activities from independent research projects to university clubs and committees, including: Wildlife Club, Ecology and Conservation Biology Club, CNR Student Advisory Board, and Honors Student Advisory Board. She has participated in several community service projects, including a spring break hurricane relief project in Louisiana, and a trip to Ecuador where she volunteered in a halfway house for street children and worked at a sustainable eco-lodge in the cloud forest. She has also studied abroad in Costa Rica.
As she looks back on what many would consider an outstanding undergraduate career, Rebecca, who is also a CNR Student Ambassador, says her success wouldn’t have been possible without the support of faculty and the opportunities offered her through CNR.
“I have loved the community within CNR – the same thing that drew me is has continued to move me,” she said. “I’ve loved being able to connect with professors and professionals on that more personal level. I’ve loved how broad a knowledge I’ve gained—from agriculture to hunting. It’s had a huge cultural impact, broadened my horizons.”
An eagerness to take part in the experiences offered through CNR set her on the path to conservation genetics.
“These opportunities prepare you for a career,” Rebecca said.
“I came in with this idealistic goal that I wanted to help save the world,” she recalled. “As I started taking classes, I decided that I wanted to go into wildlife.
“I was interested in getting involved with a lab and with research. I talked to Alton Campbell, and he hooked me up with Lisette [Waits]. I started volunteering in Steve Spears’ lab.”
The conservation genetics knowledge she acquired working in the Conservation and Ecological Genetics Laboratory led to undergraduate research experiences in Virginia at the Mountain Lake Biological Station—cementing her commitment to the field.
“It just continued to amaze me, how much I could do with the skill set that I learned from Steve. I went to Virginia and I was able to use those same skills to answer a different set of questions.”
“I realized that’s what I was really passionate about,” she said.
Eventually Rebecca plans on pursuing a doctoral program in conservation genetics. But for the moment, she will take a couple of years off to work seasonal jobs. Once again, she will keep herself open to the opportunities she’s presented with.
“I want to see where that experience takes me,” she said. “I’d like to get into academia and be a professor one day.”