Lissah Johnson '15

January 26, 2015

By working on a research project that encompasses both environmental studies and chemistry, Lissah Johnson ’15 has the best of both worlds.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” the chemistry major said. “At other schools you are lucky to get undergraduate research experience, and here it’s required.”

Johnson is working with Dr. Rebecca Lyons, assistant professor of chemistry, and Dr. Wendy McIntyre, professor of environmental studies, to take samples from different lakes in the Eastern Sierras. The team looks at the amount of phosphorous in the water, which should be low in these alpine lakes but is actually quite high. If there is too much nutrient loading, it can cause problems in the lakes, including algae bloom.

“The big picture is to draw attention to the phosphorous concentration increase, which could cause drastic ecological affects,” Johnson said. “We have to understand where it comes from ultimately to prevent the increase and stop the sources.”

Johnson is putting together a model of the different sources of phosphorous — including agriculture and septic systems — to try to determine where it is all coming from. She’s also using GIS to determine if the lakes are downwind of the Central Valley with pesticides coming in, or a housing development with a septic system.

“Every piece of that puzzle she has to go out and research,” Lyons said. “Each has a mathematical rate that she can relate back to what’s going on in these different bodies of water.”

During their trips to the Eastern Sierras, Johnson carries an inflatable kayak on her back and makes the strenuous trek up to the lakes. To collect the samples, the team goes into boats during all types of weather.

“She’s not only a good analytical chemist, she’s rough and tough in the field,” McIntyre said.

The team won’t go back up to the lakes until the spring, and now Johnson is focusing on her capstone. She is also getting ready for a conference in August where she will present her work, and will have a standalone piece ready for publishing.

“I’m going over the results, which is less lab analysis and more literature and research,” she said. “Now it’s time to bring it all together and discuss and analyze in order to get the greater context of what’s already been done.”

Johnson arrived at the University of Redlands in Fall 2013 after transferring from the University of California, Santa Barbara. UCSB seemed like the right fit when she started, she said, but soon Johnson realized that she didn’t thrive in large classes.

“It was easy to get lost,” she said. “I started researching smaller liberal arts colleges, and the University of Redlands came up on the list. It sounded great so I applied, visited the campus, and loved it.”

Johnson quickly made an impression on her new professors, who admired her tenacity and dedication to understanding what she learning.

“She stood out because of her level of thoughtfulness,” Lyons said. “She is so willing to take the time to really dig deep into the ideas and concepts of our research. It is so exciting to have a student take an idea, go away, and come back the next day having developed it further.”

Johnson said her Redlands experience has been “everything I had hoped it would be and more,” and the research opportunity was the highlight. 

“It was amazing, a dream come true, to be able to learn directly from experts and professionals,” she said. “It’s not an opportunity that a lot of undergrads get, and I’ve learned so much and I’ve grown in my confidence to take initiative on research projects.”

Written by: Catherine Garcia