Alumnus of the Year Johnson followed his passion

The research station at CFB Suffield outside of Ralston, Alta., has been the site of hundreds of military and scientific tests since 1941, and when Lawrence Johnson (BASc (BSc) ’78) was just 16 years old, he got his first job there – a summer job stacking TNT for explosives trials. It was an auspicious start for a future nuclear scientist, although Johnson himself says he didn’t know what he wanted to do with this life until a couple of years after high school when he came to the University of Lethbridge and began to study chemistry.

Lawrence Johnson credits the U of L with helping him become a broad-range thinker with the ability to delve into different fields.

Four years later, with a bachelor of science degree and the Faculty of Arts & Science gold medal to his credit, Johnson went to work for Atomic Energy of Canada. He put in 20 years with the company as a scientist and later department manager for nuclear waste research, leading studies to develop engineered barriers for nuclear waste disposal. Johnson’s work at the company played a central role in the Canadian Environmental Assessment and Review Process conducted between 1994 and 1997.

By 1999, Johnson was ready to make a career move. An opportunity at the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra) took him, his wife and youngest teenage son all the way to Europe.

Nagra is a Swiss-based company whose mandate is to prepare and implement solutions for the safe, long-term disposal and management of nuclear waste. Johnson’s role as research and development coordinator for Nagra involves the planning and coordination of research projects on radioactive waste repositories in Switzerland. He also manages studies on spent nuclear fuel under disposal conditions, and is responsible for developing new design concepts for disposal canisters. He is the author of more than 120 publications and is a consultant to numerous international waste-disposal organizations.

“Switzerland is powered 40 per cent by nuclear energy, which may surprise a lot of people,” says Johnson. “The reactors naturally produce waste, and we have to resolve what to do with it. I try to find the right balance of research to be done on the subject – how much of this type of study, how much of that one – which over 15 years has allowed me to become knowledgeable in a lot of different disciplines.”

Johnson says the liberal education he received at the U of L helped him become a broad-range thinker with the ability to delve into different fields.

“My job requires that I have a working knowledge in a variety of disciplines. At the U of L I had the freedom to take a number of courses outside my major that I was simply interested in taking, which gave me an appreciation for different areas of study. Undergrads should come away with a wide range of knowledge – they should learn how society functions, about history, about literature, in addition to having a strong base in their chosen discipline. To be able to assimilate a breadth of information you have to be schooled in how to think that way. That’s one of the great strengths of the U of L.”

Due to Swiss law, Johnson will take mandatory retirement from Nagra in 2015, but plans to continue working as a consultant. He intends to move back to Canada with his wife and settle in Winnipeg so the couple can be close to their two sons and first grandchild.

Like himself, both of Johnson’s parents were scientists (his father, Olafur Johnson, worked at Defence Research Establishment Suffield, and his mother, Hope Johnson, was a well known southern Alberta paleontologist who received an honorary doctorate from the U of L in 1981). Interestingly, both of Johnson’s sons chose to work in the film industry – an area that’s about as far from the field of nuclear-waste management as you can get.

“I didn’t even try to encourage my sons to go into science. I told them to do what they love doing,” says Johnson. “It’s the same advice I’d give to anyone – don’t chase after a career for money or prestige or any such reason. If you love what you do, everything else tends to fall into place.”

After hearing about his nomination as Alumnus of the Year, Johnson found himself pleased, and admittedly surprised.

“I had a friend jokingly say there must have been a mix-up on the call between Alumnus of the Year and the alumnus with the most parking tickets,” says Johnson with a laugh. “I don’t feel I’ve done anything particularly extraordinary – I’ve just done what interested me. That’s taken me a long way.”