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Dr. Sonke Johnsen '88

Dr. Sonke Johnsen '88

Assistant Professor
Department of Biology
Duke University

All my life, I never wanted to be a biologist. After choosing a college solely on the fact that a family friend's hardware store was in the same town, I began a major in Physics. An Algebra professor who danced and told funny stories about pathological geniuses convinced me to change my major to Mathematics. I added a major in art, mostly abortive because I refused to take art history, and left college disenchanted with education.

I then worked as a daycare provider and kindergarten teacher for Quakers, a freelance carpenter, and a dance teacher for three year olds. It was during this last job that I met Sarah, the daughter of Scott Gilbert [a professor in the Biology Department at Swarthmore] who wrote the developmental biology textbook used by most colleges. After hitch-hiking across the Pacific Northwest, I decided that I needed more education. A friend and I went through the alphabet. Deciding that a career in art was likely to be a raw deal, settled on Biology and met with Scott Gilbert and Rachel Merz [another professor in the Biology Department at Swarthmore]. Rachel suggested good places to go to graduate school and Scott got me a job with a friend of his, Stuart Kauffman.

Luckily, the job with Stu required no knowledge of biology and several graduate schools admitted me despite the same lack. I went to UNC, and after a year of reading and drawing picture of bugs on the lawn, I decided that biology was "okay". With little knowledge but high enthusiasm, I chose a high-risk, low-benefit project that I left behind the moment I handed in my thesis. My advisor, Bill Kier , pointed me to oceanic zooplankton, we both thought about transparency, and I applied to two oceanographic institutions, both of which turned me down. I cleaned fish tanks for a year, applied again, and both now accepted me. I went on my first research cruise to the Gulf of Maine with Edie Widder . It was stormy, the ship smelled, and I was seasick. It was the best time of my life. Eight years later, I have yet to look back.