Bryan Johnson is an atmospheric scientist at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory who specializes in ozone research. He has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Montana State University, but after two years working in the oil industry he decided to shift gears. He went on to graduate school and earned a master's in meteorology from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences from the University of Arizona. His current research at ESRL in Boulder, Colo., focuses on monitoring atmospheric ozone and estimating rates of ozone depletion across the globe. And he gets to use really big balloons to do it.
1. Why does your research matter?
The weekly balloon ozonesondes we send up at various sites help keep track of the health of the stratospheric ozone layer, which screens out harmful amounts of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight. Viewing the weekly plots from the tropics to the Antarctic ozone hole and comparing to many years of observations, gives you a better feel for variability in ozone and identifying anomalies.
2. What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Catching up on viewing new ozone profiles coming in each week and trying out different methods to efficiently edit, manage, and view ozone data. Also, setting up for field projects and training people who are often eager to send up balloon-borne ozonesondes.
3. Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
Most of the time I am in the office working on data, purchasing supplies, answering questions from field sites, but sometimes involved in planning for field projects and travel to some of the locations to do the actual balloon launches.
4. What in your lab could you not live without?
I use spreadsheet software every day to edit and manage all the incoming data. It is very helpful for a non-computer programmer like me.
5. If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be?
"The balloon ozonesondes we send up help keep track of the health of the stratospheric ozone layer, which screens out harmful amounts of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight."
An ideal, near perfect atmospheric simulation chamber or instrument that can be used for calibrating ozonesondes as well as other ozone measurement techniques would be very desirable. We do participate in various campaigns, local or internationally, to compare with other methods of ozone measurement, but in the real atmosphere you can still have uncertainties with different measurement techniques. Ozone trend analysis would be easier with perfectly calibrated instruments.
A second choice would be some sort of sci-fi transporter device that would send ozonesonde supplies immediately to our foreign, remote locations – eliminating all shipping hurdles and paperwork.
6. When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
I started out in general sciences and engineering course work as an undergraduate. I was a petroleum engineer for two years with Amoco Production Company, but during the 1980s oil bust I decided to change careers and went from engineering to enrolling in graduate school in meteorology and later atmospheric sciences.
7. What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
Currently I am reading: The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean. It is a recent publication that has a great assortment of stories about famous thinkers and clever discoveries.
8. And how about a personal favorite book?
My library list of checked-out books doesn’t sound interesting, primarily titles related to Excel spreadsheet techniques. However, it is exciting to learn a helpful trick for data analysis. Personal favorites are usually books recommended or loaned to me. One favorite was an older book written by J.A. Hunter and Dan Mannix called African Bush Adventures about early travels into Kenya.
9. What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?
Working for a few weeks at Amundsen Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica. It is an excellent scientific research site for the extreme conditions.
10. Do you have an outside hobby?
I am starting to enjoy cross country skiing more, especially on wind free days with new snow.
11. What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
I grew up on a farm and ranch in North Dakota. Besides watching the weather, I enjoyed farm work, but farms are mostly large scale operations today so I would probably look into some nontraditional agricultural area - maybe even make a profit.
12. Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
For science and math, I think Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) is one I would choose. From short historical accounts I have read, he was a normal family guy with apparently an amazing ability to visualize, memorize, and calculate complex things in his head, which seems to be a common characteristic of many famous scientists. I’m happy when I can figure out how much change I should get back at the store without using a calculator or spreadsheet.