On the Mic with Mike #4: Ode to Dr. Joy Johnson

In this episode of On the Mic with Mike, CIHR President Dr. Michael Strong meets Dr. Joy Johnson, the incoming President of Simon Fraser University. The two discuss how Dr. Johnson caught the research bug, why international collaborations matter, and what she thinks the next big thing is in the world of research.

Listen to the interview here or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify.


Dr. Mike Strong: Hello and welcome to this episode of On the Mike with Mike. Today we're at Simon Fraser University and we're in the games room. We're going to be talking with Joy Johnson, who's the Vice-President of Research here. She's had an amazing career, but also is helping steer the ship of Simon Fraser University as it moves forward in its academic mandate. So, looking forward to what is going to be a great discussion. But in a few moments, because I have a really great score going on here! So, we've got to finish up a little bit. Talk to you in a few minutes.

Dr. Mike Strong: Joy, thank you for joining us on this episode of On the Mike with Mike. As you know, this is really just a conversation around your career and advice to young people who might be thinking about a similar career. So, can you tell us a little bit? What are you doing now?

Dr. Joy Johnson: I'm the Vice-President Research and International at Simon Fraser University. And in that role, I help support research across the university and all disciplines across all of our faculties, making sure that our researchers have the support they need to be successful. And I also have the International office reporting to me. So, looking for opportunities for our faculty and our students to be engaged internationally through research collaborations, faculty exchange, and student exchange.

Dr. Mike Strong: Right. So that's got of be thrilling for you. I was looking at some data just the other day that came through from Stats Canada that was talking about the distribution of our younger professors. No surprise we're seeing less. But then sort of a shift towards an older demographic. So, in your role, how much do you get to mold and help those young investigators be successful and move forward?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Well, ultimately, we want to see all of our investigators be successful. But I think in particular, when new faculty come to SFU, you know, they're learning about a new institution, and some of them are coming from outside of Canada. So, they need to learn more about the granting councils, need to learn more about just the mechanisms, the ecosystem here and how they can be successful. And as you know, collaboration is so important now for researchers, so to figure out how they can create connections. And so that's part of the role that we play, for sure.

Dr. Mike Strong: Right. And you mentioned you've got the international portfolio, but you also, in your answer, just also mentioned that you have international recruitments coming in.

Dr. Joy Johnson: Yeah, absolutely.

Dr. Mike Strong: A lot of people, I think, don't realize that our hunting ground for new faculty is really worldwide now for expertise. How does that play out for you?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Well, ultimately, if you want to be an excellent university and attract top talent, we rely on a number of great Canadian universities to recruit top faculty members, graduates from our PhD and postdoc programs. But also, internationally, it's really important now as well. And that's wonderful for a variety of reasons, because these are excellent researchers that come to SFU bringing different perspectives from their countries, but they also bring a tie back to their country very often. And so, it helps us build bridges internationally as well, thinking about connections that we can develop.

Dr. Mike Strong: And those international collaborations, I mean, it's an area that we talk about a lot at the CIHR, in terms of the strength and the need for those. And yet, many times the conversations that I'll have are that “we should be putting our resources here at home; I'm not really seeing the value add,” while these international linkages are really critical. So how do you navigate that? Because not everybody agrees that we should be as strongly international as we are.

Dr. Joy Johnson: Well, my argument is that science and scholarship doesn't know boundaries or borders, and that great science often does need this type of international collaboration because of the perspective that gets brought, because of the different connections. I also think that, particularly in this era where there's so many divisions across countries, among states, state units, I do believe that academia has a role to play in diplomacy, in crossing borders as well. So often when our politicians can't find a way, our scientists can. And so, that's also so important for us as a nation, for Canada, and also for the world.

Dr. Mike Strong: So, you've had a really interesting pathway to get here. And SFU is really growing, and it's really striking the amount of changes that are happening. So how has all of that helped to inform how you're guiding the research mantle here?

Dr. Joy Johnson: So, yeah, it's interesting the thing about my trajectory. You know, my first degree was in nursing and I worked as a nurse for five years before I went back to graduate school. And it was really in graduate school that I got the research bug and decided that I was interested in an academic career, a research career. And then I had time at CIHR as a Scientific Director, as well as having been a faculty member at UBC for a number of years. And all of that informs what I'm doing today in a variety of different ways. I think that certainly as a nurse, for example, it was really important to understand the social dynamics of health, but also to understand the physical, understand physiology and how it affects health outcomes for people. So being already in my early professional life having to think about the bio-psycho-social elements, situates me to talk to a variety of different scientists. And then I'd say on my own, it’s important to have been a researcher myself and a productive researcher myself to understand what it's like to build a program of research, to have been rejected many times in the granting council or from a paper that's been submitted for publication. All of those experiences inform how I see my role today, because it gives me a lot of compassion for the research community. I do see where the opportunities lie as well because of that. And I would say also coming back to CIHR, it was really as a Scientific Director at CIHR that I also really learned strategy and learned about the ways in which we need to build platforms, build opportunities for our research community.

Dr. Mike Strong: So, you mentioned that at the beginning you used the phraseology where I caught the bug. To do research, right?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Yeah.

Dr. Mike Strong: And it's interesting to ask people about was there a seminal moment or seminal person that gave you that bug or was it just a constellation of things?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Yeah. For me, I was probably a little bit more of a constellation. You know, I initially went back to graduate school because I was going to do a Master's and I thought, oh, maybe I'll go into hospital administration or something like that. And this would allow me to do that. And it was really – I did my Master’s and PhD at the University of Alberta – and it was really a magical time. They were just starting the very first PhD program in the country in nursing.

Dr. Mike Strong: Okay.

Dr. Joy Johnson: So just being part of that. There was a lot of excitement and really amazing scholars who were inspiring in terms of thinking about the opportunities for health research, for nursing research as well. And I just saw so many possibilities. So, it is really that constellation of really exciting times that made me think and understand what the possibilities would be.

Dr. Mike Strong: So, that's interesting because, you know, we're starting to look at new training programs like, for instance, bringing back a clinician scientist and what that would look like. We're being very careful to make sure that the definition is not restrictive to an M.D. pool, but rather, to a much broader area. But what I'm still finding, and particularly with a lot of my colleagues within the nursing field, is this concept that there is a part of nursing which will lead to academia and research and success in that, but that's still kind of unusual. It doesn't happen very often. So, what would you say if you had a group of nurses, students who are with you right now and want to know what would your advice be thinking about a career like yours or thinking about what are the academic drivers that I could get into going through nursing?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Yeah, I think that so often – and this is why I went into nursing as I was really interested in serving the public. I had a lot of compassion for people who were ill. I really was interested in health issues and I think that's the initial motivation. But I think a lot of people who go into nursing now also are really interested in the career opportunities. And they don't, to your point, always think about the opportunities in terms of research. And so, I think there's a few things that need to happen. One is I think we need to introduce… it's important to have role models out there. And so that that's important. And I think there's a lot more embedding around thinking about research evidence, thinking about research in all of our nursing curricula now. And I do think to see those pathways. I mean, that's why nursing is such a great career right now – there are so many pathways and so many opportunities.

Dr. Mike Strong: So, if you were in a position of thinking about what would I have done differently – and we all do, at some point, look back on it. Is there anything you might have done differently to prepare you for where you are now?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Well, to prepare me for now?

Dr. Mike Strong: … To prepare for now, and the second question will be, and if you did something else.

Dr. Joy Johnson: You know, it's interesting. I mean, I don't know any five-year-old who wakes up and says, I want to be a Vice-President, Research and International when I grow up…

Dr. Mike Strong: Not a highlight?

Dr. Joy Johnson: And who would think about doing that, right? But I'm thrilled to be in this role. I've really enjoyed it. And I do think there were a series of stepping stones that allowed me to get to this place. Could there have been other stepping stones? Maybe. But it's interesting to think about what else would have helped me get to this place. I really think CIHR was great. Being a professor was great. All of those pieces… taking on leadership roles in the university – really important. And all of them prepared me to get to where I am today. So, yeah, nothing really comes to mind, I have to say.

Dr. Mike Strong: Which is fair, you know, there's a common thread that I hear along this line too is that, as you say, I didn't wake up when I was five years old and say, gee, I want to be doing this.

Dr. Joy Johnson: Yeah.

Dr. Mike Strong: I didn't wake up when I was 30, and know for certain where I was going to be.

Dr. Joy Johnson: Yeah, totally.

Dr. Mike Strong: But there's that ability to say, you know what? Let's just see what happens. Like take that path. And were there times during this pathway where you made a conscious decision to say, I really do want to go down this pathway? Or was it very much, that's fascinating. I'd like to try that.

Dr. Joy Johnson: Yeah. So, it's such an interesting comment because, for me, I had been very successful as a professor at UBC. I had a big program of research. We had a lot of research funding, had a great team, was a full professor. And it was really at that point, I thought, hmm, what next? You know what? What else am I really interested in? And I am a builder. I really like to build teams. I really like to build opportunities. And I started to think about where those next opportunities could be. So, I had my eye on CIHR, I have to say. And so that was really... I was, and I have in my career looked for that next opportunity. And it's interesting because as particularly when I talk to women and their careers, I really encourage them to apply for jobs that they might not get even, you know, like if you don't benchmark yourself, maybe you don't put yourself out there, you're not going to know if you're going to get those positions. And so, yeah, that's been part of my trajectory as well as, is to take the risk, apply to be a Scientific Director CIHR, apply to be Vice-President Research and International at SFU. And follow the flow, see what leads to the next opportunity.

Dr. Mike Strong: So, let's talk a little bit about next opportunities, but in a broader sense.

Dr. Joy Johnson: Yeah.

Dr. Mike Strong: So, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is that. So, we're going through a really interesting period in science and in public understanding of the value of science right now. And it touches all spheres and touches clinical practice, all the way through to our research component. How do you see the role of universities, particularly academically, for research intensive universities, and maybe helping to steer this ship a bit of the public understanding of what we do in science or why it's so important that we do it in an unfettered way? And then what the real value add of not just simply having the right data to make decisions. Because there's a little bit of a wall up there about not really what we need. So, as you think about universities moving forward, how would you see that role changing?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Well, to start with, at Simon Fraser University, the vision that we've taken on as university is to be an engaged university, engaged in our community, engaged in our world. And part of that is about finding ways to make sure that the knowledge we generate, the knowledge we mobilize is meaningful and can make a difference in the world. And do that in partnership with our communities, do that in partnership with industry. But to really think about – and to your point there, definitely we're living in an era where there's a lot of doubting taking place around it. The nature of evidence, this “post-truth era” is challenging all of us. And so, I think more and more it is the responsibility of the research community of universities, to not just generate knowledge and publish in peer reviewed publications, but we have an obligation to help the public understand the value of the work that we're doing and also to leverage that value to take that next step in terms of taking great ideas and transforming those ideas for good in society. I mean, I believe that universities have a public contract to do that. And we see it done across a number of universities, but we need to do that more. And that's why this knowledge mobilization work is so important. Our obligations around open science, open data are so important because that will help us get to where we need to go.

Dr. Mike Strong: So where do you think the next big frontier is? I mean, you're a VPR, right? So, you must be thinking about this a lot, about investments in science going forward. And I really use the term science and a very broad basis with this. So, if you were looking forward and thinking about where you'd be making investments, to actually get to where you're describing, but also move us forward as a country, from a research perspective, where would you invest?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Well, it's interesting. I mean, I am actually very keen on some of these new opportunities that are emerging for large, transformative, multidisciplinary teams. I think that is a really interesting area for investment, because I think some of the wicked problems that we're going to have to deal with in health are going to really need a variety of different perspectives. And so that is an area I would think about for sure. I think, in terms of where I would invest it, I think it depends on whether I'd invest as a granting council or invest as a university.

Dr. Mike Strong: Right.

Dr. Joy Johnson: And so, for us as a university, we look to where our strengths are and look for where we can build strength as well. And so that should be a very data informed decision, and that's what we try to do, we try to look at ways that we can create clusters of researchers here at SFU in areas that we might be able to build on. And some of the, and no surprise to you, some of the big bets into the future are things like artificial intelligence. And that's so relevant for health, as we know, machine learning, precision health. We know that's going to be very important. And we've been really pushing our advanced research computing analytics because as well, that crosses all areas of the university, all areas of interest, and there's so much data out there that we're not utilizing. And so, there's so much opportunity there as well. So that's another area that we're particularly keen about. And we also look for where the opportunities are emerging. So, our province just announced that they're going to be interested in building quantum opportunities here in British Columbia. And so, we're looking at, we've got quite a bit of strength in that area and we're looking at how can we build on that investment now as well. So, kind of pivoting to where the opportunities are, but also thinking where our own strengths are going to be as well.

Dr. Mike Strong: So, I was going to ask you – I think I know the answer – but I was going to ask you, if you could do it all over again and you did some other pathway, would there be something you'd be interested in? I suspect I know the answer, but I’ll still ask.

Dr. Joy Johnson: That's interesting. Well, you know, I change my mind about that. I mean, I love my job. And let me be clear: I love my job. But I'm also one of these people who reads a book and I think, “Oh, I'd love to do that!” Or, for example, I had an opportunity to go to France with some of our Earth science researchers and, climb up a volcano there with them. And I thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is so interesting – the natural world is so amazing!” So, I think that, while I love what I'm doing, wouldn't it have been great to be a volcanologist? Who knows, right? And I just never thought about those opportunities. You know, it's interesting how one's path goes down in a particular direction. And in some ways, I'm very happy with where I've landed. But I think there could have been other Joy Johnsons out there in the world, too, if I'd taken a different path.

Dr. Mike Strong: Okay. One of the things, certainly when I'm talking to students and young people thinking about coming into this sort of career, they look at it and they see our lifestyle and they think about the amount of work, the amount of hours that we put in to all this. But they don't see the other half, right? Which is the real joy, the pleasure of it all, but also the opportunities and things we do outside. So, I want to ask you, set aside this Joy Johnson, who's the VPR. What do you do when you're not doing this?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Well, I have fun! It's very important to me! So, some of the things I do… I love the natural world, as I mentioned. So, to be out, not in the waters here on the West Coast, but in Hawaii snorkeling. That would be a dream for me to be, in the water, swimming. And I swim in the ocean in the summertime as much as I can. Hiking, biking, that kind of physical, out in the world, in parks. I sit at a desk a lot. I love my family and friends, cooking dinners for many people, drinking wine – good wine only. Only good wine!

Dr. Mike Strong: Only good wine? No bias as to where that might have come from?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Did you hear about that they're taking wine into space to see how it ages? Anyhow, that's a whole other story. Unbelievable. That was on the news today. Anyhow, yes, I feel I have a very full life. I love to read and read all sorts of things and yeah, I feel like I've got a very full life and a satisfying life.

Dr. Mike Strong: Great. Okay, so there's a question that I do love to ask at the end of all of these interviews. And that is, if you had an opportunity to talk to anybody – I don't care when historically or whatever – who would you talk to and why?

Dr. Joy Johnson: It's interesting. I thought this question might be coming. And initially I thought, oh, it should be relevant to my career and I might change my mind. No, I'm not going to change my mind about it. I actually do believe that Florence Nightingale is the person I would be very interested in meeting. And, you know, she's considered the founder of modern nursing. And she was courageous. I mean, just imagine a woman, a very educated, upper class woman going out to the Crimea, out to the war zone, and serving the soldiers who were wounded. But also, a brilliant statistician.

Dr. Mike Strong: I did not know that.

Dr. Joy Johnson: Yes, a brilliant statistician, developed some of the very early statistical methods and never credited for that either. And also, a public health genius thinking about contagion, thinking about what needs to take place to help people be as healthy as possible. Thinking about the environment. Wrote actively about the environment so what made her be who she is. And so, I think she's very often misread and misunderstood. So, she would be a person.

Dr. Mike Strong: Is that what you would ask her? What made her?

Dr. Joy Johnson: Yes. Like how did you find your path? And how did you think through the methods that you developed? I mean, that's interesting.

Dr. Mike Strong: Well, fascinating. It won't happen, but...

Dr. Joy Johnson: You know, it's a great question!

Dr. Mike Strong: Joy, thank you so much!

Dr. Joy Johnson: You're very welcome, my pleasure!

Dr. Mike Strong: Best of luck as you go to the next step, whatever it might be. Thank you so much!

Dr. Joy Johnson: Thank you!

Dr. Mike Strong: Alright. That's it for another episode of On the Mike with Mike. I look forward to chatting with you again. Thank you.

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