Physics Dean’s Medalist shares importance of building a supportive community

May 8, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Arizona State University physics graduate Holly Johnson is the Spring 2020 Dean’s Medalist for the Department of Physics in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Arizona State University physics graduate Holly Johnson is the Spring 2020 dean’s medalist for the Department of Physics. Image courtesy of Holly Johnson Download Full Image

An award-winning student and researcher, she has received the NASA Space Grant for multiple years, presented at numerous conferences and co-authored three published papers. She looks forward to continuing her research, applying the principles of nanoscience and materials physics to renewable energy and sustainability.

Johnson grew up on childhood science shows like Bill Nye's and developed a natural interest in learning more about the world around her. She knew she wanted to pursue a degree in science, but was initially indecisive about exactly which branch, and she considered a variety of options including math and marine biology. Finally, figuring she could always change later if she wanted to, Johnson decided to start with physics and see where that would lead.

“There's a lot you can do with physics,” she said. “It's incredibly interesting and very challenging, which is something I appreciate.”

Shared vision

For Johnson, an Arizona-native, applying to ASU was a natural choice.

She was accepted into the Sundial Project, a part of ASU’s Early Start Program for incoming students, and she quickly realized she had found what she needed. Beginning with a two-week workshop before the start of Fall classes, the Sundial project is dedicated to building an inclusive and supportive community within the physical sciences. Faculty, undergraduate and graduate students participate in leadership and mentorship programs, career and networking workshops, and practical training in the practice of professional, scientific research — culminating with their first undergraduate research experience.

Being immediately surrounded by a community of peers who shared both her ambitious drive and her excitement and passion for physics made all the difference for Johnson, and it helped her feel right at home.

“If I didn’t experience that, I might not have chosen the way that I had,” she said. “I think a lot of people have this perspective of physics that it's a very solo mission, and that you have to be top of the top, crazy intelligent.”

This perception certainly didn’t line up with Johnson’s personal experience. She worked hard to understand new principles and concepts and continually sought out additional help and perspectives from teachers, mentors and friends.

“This isn't some lofty career that you just choose on a whim, and you're born to do it — you can actually work really hard to be good at it,” she said.

Falling for research

Johnson continued to participate in the Sundial mentorship program, as both a mentee and mentor, as well as the ASU chapter of the Society of Physics Students throughout her undergraduate journey.

In addition to her involvement in organizations such as these, Johnson said she enjoyed spectacular faculty mentors through her undergraduate research experiences.

“That was definitely like the most important part of my undergraduate career was being able to do research and get that sort of hands-on experience doing lab work, and analyzing data presenting at conferences and talking and working with other people,” she said.

Johnson is a member of Department of Physics Regents Professor Robert Nemanich’s research group, which also gave her the opportunity to work closely with Department of Physics’ Anna Zaniewski, associate instructional professional, and Ricardo Alarcon, President’s Professor.

“They are amazing; it was like the holy grail of research experiences,” Johnson said.

She did extensive work in fabricating diamond-based diode detectors.

These fascinating and durable semiconducting devices can detect alpha particles, even when under enormous heat and pressure. Potential applications for this technology range from precision medical radiation to gathering data on the surface of Venus.

“Holly Johnson has made great strides in research on two important projects in our group. She is clearly skilled in experimental science, and she deeply understands the research from the scientific problem to experimental study and to application,” said Nemanich.

“Holly’s research has focused on radiation detectors based on single crystal diamond, where her role in the project was to understand how to make electrical contact to diamond using the microfabrication capabilities at the ASU Nanofab clean room. The detectors, which were tested at the Mayo Clinic proton therapy facility, were able to accurately map the proton beam shape, position and flux, which could be important for determining radiation dose during proton radiation therapy,” he said.

“Holly demonstrates an ability to learn quickly, think independently and collaborate well,” said Zaniewski. “Her technical skills are impressive: she is certified to use a shared clean room facility normally not used by undergraduates. ... She learns each new technique quickly and carefully. She takes detailed notes and is trusted with our most essential samples and research projects.”

Johnson also completed a summer National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, where she worked with organic materials with potential application in solar panels and other sustainability projects.

Throughout her multiple research projects and experiences, Johnson said she truly fell in love with experimental research and enjoys the opportunity to apply physics principles to new challenges and real-world applications. After graduation, she will continue her research journey as a graduate student at Princeton University.

“This is everything that I want to do for the rest of my career,” she said. “I could do research till the end of time, and I would be satisfied because it is so cool.”

Passing on some wisdom

To those beginning their college experience — especially in a demanding field like physics — Johnson recommends finding and building a network of support as quickly as possible.

“These are the things that really make or break your experience,” she said. “I definitely would not have stuck with physics and I definitely would not have finished physics had I not had a network. … There are a lot of hurdles you have to overcome to get to the finish line and graduate.”

Johnson made it a point to form study groups, especially for her most challenging classes. When looking to develop your own network of support, she recommends keeping an eye on your department emails and participating in events and social organizations. And, outside the structure of formal groups, a little initiative is all that’s needed. Johnson recommends talking to your classmates, asking when they are available, and then setting a date and making it happen; having peers and mentors can make all the difference in figuring something out, she said.

“If I had to sit through like every assignment on my own and have like no one to bounce ideas off of or no one to like ask questions with, it would have been impossible,” she said.

Additionally, studying and learning with a group of friends will make the entire experience more fun, she said. One of Johnson’s favorite study tactics was to get together with her classmates and project a movie from her laptop while they worked. Star Wars movies made an appearance more than once.

“Oh, and get some sleep!” Johnson said.

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences


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‘Home was ASU’: Graduate returns to school after raising four Sun Devils

May 8, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Chantal VanKlompenberg has lived a life supporting and caring for Sun Devils. Her five siblings are Sun Devil alumni, as are her four children. And now, decades after graduating from McClintock High School, VanKlompenberg is joining the Sun Devil club herself.

“I was done raising kids and I said, ‘It's time for Mama to return home, and home was ASU,’” VanKlompenberg said.

VanKlompenberg immigrated with her family to the United States from Vietnam when she was 7 years old. Her father had completed school through the third grade, while her mother had no formal education. As the eldest of her siblings, she helped to raise her younger brothers and sisters a couple of miles from Arizona State University’s Tempe campus and said it was always her parents' dream for their children to attend the university.

However, soon after graduating from high school, she had to place that dream on hold after meeting her husband and starting a family.

“The focus of my life was my children,” said VanKlompenberg. “I sacrificed and raised my four beautiful children.”

As her children grew older and began graduating from ASU themselves, VanKlompenberg said she was inspired to return to campus.

“My last one, she's 21 and her passion for school and everything made me want to go back too,” she said.

VanKlompenberg had some community college credits and was working at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in the career services department when she decided to complete her core courses and transfer to ASU.

This May, VanKlompenberg will graduate with her bachelor’s degree from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as with a certificate in leadership and ethics. Her motivation to pursue her degree in communication stemmed from her work at Chandler-Gilbert.

“I love to communicate; I’m a people person. I love to be out there and in front of people and just communicate and connect, and so it was just the perfect major for me,” she said.

For the last two years, VanKlompenberg advertised her academic journey as “it’s my turn, it’s my time, on my terms” to her team of supporters.

And now, as she reviews the straight A’s on her transcript, she said she’s proud that she was able to finish so strong.

“I'm gonna be honest, I never realized that I could be that smart or that I can be that educated, that I can study, that I can learn,” she said. “Who would have thought that? I’m very happy with myself.”

VanKlompenberg answered some questions about her time at ASU and her family’s connection to the university.

Question: What did it mean to your parents for all of your siblings to graduate from ASU?

Answer: Mom and Dad brought us here for freedom because they both never finished school. Coming here, all they wanted us to do was go to work and just go to school and get a life out of it. I'm the last and the oldest finishing college. They're so proud that all six of their kids have families and work hard and have their degrees. Their dream was ASU, and we all accomplished that mission, that lifetime goal for them.

Q: What has been your best memory at ASU?

A: I did a storytelling event through Ignite@ASU. Even though I love talking to people, it was still scary telling 200, 300 people your personal story for the first time, from the time you left the country to the time you're an older mom, going back to school. It was an accomplishment. Ignite is one of the best programs; the experience makes you a whole different person.

Q: Were you involved in any clubs/organizations? Which ones? How did they shape your experience? 

A: I volunteered with Dr. Neal Lester’s Project Humanities homeless outreach for the last two years. I kind of knew him toward the end of my year at Chandler-Gilbert. I get involved with that every other Saturday, and on Fridays I help sort donations at the warehouse. I'm very involved in my city, Chandler, with nonprofits that I volunteer at and help run, and pouring myself into school.

Q: What skills and/or what experiences have you gained from your time in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that will help you achieve your future goals in life?

A: I took some stress management classes, and that helped me to meditate, to be grateful and have gratitude and patience. I also think I've become a better writer; I used to be so afraid to write.

As of April 30, I have been in this country for 45 years. Last year was my first year going back to Vietnam and visiting my homeland. While I was at ASU, I took two semesters of Vietnamese language. I speak it fluently, but could only kind of read it. The courses helped me so much when I went back to Vietnam last year because I was able to relearn reading and writing the language. It's funny when you speak it fluently, people would say, “Why can't you read and write?” I never had the time to learn that; I just had to speak Vietnamese to my mom and dad.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I love Emilee Shearer, because of my gender class. I'm such an open person and I accept everything, but I'm still a gullible, naive mom too because there's so much to learn out there about gender and the definition and the terms that I've never known. She was so patient with me and just so kind and had empathy for an adult returning back to school and not understanding. She took the time and would get back with me promptly, and I'm very thankful for that. To be a professor like that — passionate about what she's teaching and then still have time to reach back out to her student within minutes — that's like, wow, she's not there just for the paycheck.

Q: What advice would you give to others considering returning to school?

A: So many people from young to old are afraid to take that first step. I've known so many young kids who are working full time just to make a living, pay rent and everything, but they want to go back to school and I said, it doesn't hurt to ask. Pick up that phone or see that adviser; they will be able to map it out for you. That's what I did –– I talked to an adviser, I said, “I have this many credits. Where can I be? Where do I start? What do I need to finish it?” When they laid all that information out, I knew I could do it. So that's what I would recommend: Take that first step; go see an adviser, go see somebody that works at the university or college so they can advise you and help.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I was thinking about furthering my education and getting a master's in higher education. I've also always wanted to be an ESL teacher. I want to be around students; I want to help people. That's what I want to do right now. I'm going to take a break after the last two weeks of studying and just relax. I'm thinking about cleaning the house, and after this week hopefully we can just take off on a road trip and be free before my next mission.

Top photo: Chantal VanKlompenberg, her parents and siblings — all Sun Devil alumni — pose on Palm Walk. Photo by Milton Yang Photography

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer , The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences