Pratt Dean Kristina Johnson Named to Women in Technology International Hall of Fame

June 20, 2003

Kristina M. Johnson, among the pioneers of applications of liquid crystals, including micro displays for high-definition projection television, and dean of Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, will be inducted into the Women in Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame on June 25, at a ceremony at the group's annual meeting in San Jose, Calif.

WITI, a global organization dedicated to advancing women in technology careers, established the Hall of Fame in 1996 to recognize outstanding women for their research contributions and achievements. Johnson, an electrical engineer, joins Hall of Fame members that include renowned fellow engineers Mildred Dresselhaus of MIT and Elaine Oran of the U.S. Naval Research Lab, and Nobel laureates Rosalyn Yalow and Gertrude Elion.

"I'm honored to be included in this distinguished group of women who are passionate about technology and about advocating technical careers for women," said Johnson.

Said Duke Provost Peter Lange, "This honor is extraordinarily well-deserved for Dean Johnson. She exemplifies the academic achievement as well as the creativity and entrepreneurial drive that inspire other women to consider engineering as a career worthy of their talents. At Duke, her leadership continues to build the Pratt School of Engineering into a center of excellence in teaching, research and service to society."

Johnson's engineering career got off to a slow start -- she wanted to be a physicist. But when her father, an electrical engineer, died during her sophomore year at college, she decided to find out more about what he had done during his life. "The more I learned about engineering, the more I liked that it could explain things, and that you could apply it to solve problems," said Johnson.

Won over, Johnson followed in the footsteps of both her father and grandfather by becoming an electrical engineer. She earned her bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford University and specialized in holography -- the creation of three-dimensional images using lasers.

In 1985, Johnson returned to her home state of Colorado and joined the faculty of the University of Colorado in Boulder. She co-founded the National Science Foundation-funded Optoelectronic Computing Systems Center. That same year, Johnson received a prestigious Presidential Young Investigator Award, signed by President Reagan.

Passionate about involving young people in science, math and engineering, Johnson joined with a local television weatherman to create a ten-part educational television series, called the "Physics of Light," aimed at 5th to 8th graders. The highly successful show, which aired nightly on a local NBC affiliate channel, was distributed to more than 500 schools throughout the Rocky Mountain region as teaching curriculum.

"I got involved in the series primarily because I wanted young kids to see that a woman could be a scientist," said Johnson. She was nominated for a regional Emmy award in 1991 for her work.

In 1993, Johnson won the International Denis Gabor Medal for Outstanding Achievements in Modern Optics. In 1994, at the age of 35, Johnson earned tenure at the University of Colorado and was honored with the Photonics Spectra Circle of Excellence Award for her invention of a new form of liquid crystal display.

In 1995, the National Academy of Engineering selected her for the Frontiers of Engineering Institute.

Through it all, Johnson was receiving a multitude of patents on new ideas and technology. She currently holds 44 patents with several more pending, and is internationally known as an expert in electro-optics, signal processing and displays.

Most of her research focuses on splitting light into components of color. "That kind of color separation is what is needed for high definition TV, projectors and other applications," said Johnson.

Such work is the basis for optoelectronic devices that use light to transmit information or energy. Applications include telecommunications in which researchers can encode a voice, data or even movies on a single wavelength. "Our colorful world provides us with infinite possibilities to use light wavelengths in computing/signal processing, bioengineering, astronomy, spectrometry, and medical imaging," Johnson explained.

During her 14-year stay at the University of Colorado, Johnson attracted more than $42 million in research grants and contracts. The work she conducted and oversaw as director of the Optoelectronics Computing Systems Center created the foundation for the Rocky Mountain region's international eminence in photonics. The Center "created a unique environment for photonics businesses, enabling industry to plug into the vast intellectual and laboratory resources of the University of Colorado," said Johnson. She also founded the Colorado Advanced Photonics Technology Center for training a technical workforce in photonics and optics.

Lured by the entrepreneurial call, Johnson and colleague Gary D. Sharp founded a spin-off company called ColorLink, Inc. ( in 1995 that develops and markets color-management components for next-generation computer monitors, digital televisions, and data projectors that utilize high resolution liquid crystal on silicon microdisplays.

She also founded an intellectual property licensing company called KAJ, LLC, to help new companies get started using technology developed at the center. Johnson and co-founder Juan Rodriguez came up with the idea for KAJ when they realized that new photonics technology --such as micro displays and tunable optical filters -- was not getting into industry in part because the new technologies were unfamiliar. Johnson took a leave of absence from the University of Colorado to help get the company going.

Recognizing Johnson's successful work with industry and in shaping the economic vitality of the Rocky Mountain region, the State of Colorado honored her with the Colorado Technology Transfer Award in 1996.

Johnson is a fellow in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) ( and the Optical Society of America ( She is a member of the International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE) (, the Sigma Xi research society (, the American Society for Engineering Education (, and the Engineering Honor Society Tau Beta Pi (

In 1999, with her research and technology development career firmly established, Johnson joined Duke University to become the first woman dean of the Pratt School of Engineering in the school's 60-year history.

"As dean, I have the opportunity to make a lasting impact on the engineering profession through new generations of engineers and innovative approaches to education," said Johnson.

Building on Duke's already respectable engineering faculty and research capability, Johnson is establishing an environment that fosters a "bold, personal and cross-disciplinary education, to make major breakthroughs for the betterment of society," she said.

Johnson said she is dedicated to increasing the numbers of women and underrepresented minorities who choose engineering as their life's work. Currently, women constitute less than 20 percent of the nation's engineering graduates and minorities account for less than 15 percent of technical field graduates. In 2002, Johnson testified before a Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, urging the Senate to support broadening participation in science and math education for women and underrepresented students.