Carl Johnson, Director of Shared Scientific Instrumentation, Carbone Cancer Center

Carl Johnson is the director of shared scientific instrumentation at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center. Get to know him in the following Q&A.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Laurie Silverberg, PhD

Tell me about your current position.

Carl Johnson
Carl Johnson (photo by Laurie Silverberg)

I’m a facilities manager with the alternate title of director of shared scientific instrumentation. In 2009 I came on with more or less the express purpose to help populate WIMR, bring new labs into this new space, tailor the space to their needs and deal with the accompanying problems and improvements that needed to be made. I saw myself more as a concierge than anything else: If you have a problem, come to me; if I can’t help you with it I can find someone that can. I’ve also been broadening my reach to the DOTs — the disease-oriented teams who work with clinical patients.

Tell me about the instrumentation part of your work.

The cancer center bought a lot of expensive instrumentation to populate the building early on. I’m in charge of the instrumentation that you wouldn’t want to afford as an individual lab. I’m there to be a caretaker, make sure you understand how you use it, and if it breaks, I’m the guy to fix it or find someone that can.

What did you do before this position?

I was at the Waisman Center (editor’s note: for nearly 20 years) and was a program manager and lab manager for the microbeam facility. We had a one-of-a-kind device: Using high-energy photons, we could basically image your mouth while you’re speaking and see your tongue move in your mouth relative to your flesh. I’d glue little gold pellets to your tongue, jaw and teeth, and I could image where the gold pellets were. It took an interesting path. I think the original intent was to build a tool for speech pathologists, but we got a lot of funding privately from Motorola, ATR of Japan, who became interested in voice recognition and voice generation. I think most of the data we generated was used for phone data, talk-to-text, things like that. We were basically able to make a mathematical model of your speech.

What is your favorite part of the job you’re doing now?

Interacting with other people. What’s great about my job is that I probably have 500 different subjects, 500 different bosses. People who are all members of the cancer center will contact me — fortunately not all on one day — but it adds to a lot of variety: a lot of buildings, a lot of different applications, a lot of different science and opportunities. I don’t have to be in my office all the time — I’m moving to other buildings, going to the labs and working with other people. I enjoy being the plate man, where you have 14 things going at once, and if a couple are wobbly and about to hit the ground, that’s where the excitement is. That doesn’t disturb me. I triage projects well.

What is the most challenging part of what you do?

Chemistry and biology are not my strengths; my background is in engineering. I get instrumentation, I get mechanics, I understand buildings, but the chemistry and biology are trickier for me. I lean on my colleagues to tell me what they’re talking about.

What is a typical workday, if you have one as such?

I come in on a Monday morning, and it’s usually cleaning up messes from people who worked all weekend: “This is broken”; “the cold room is down, can you fix that”; “we had $800 worth of experiments going in that room, what happened, can I get it reimbursed?” That’s my typical morning, trying to pick up the pieces. In the afternoon I do the space work: I get a lot of requests from people who need more space or want to change their space. I serve as their liaison to the craftspeople on campus, to try to help them if they want to pay out of pocket, or I work with the cancer center administration if they want someone else to pay for it or they want to expand their space.

How has the university changed in the time you’ve been here?

We’ve become less siloed. When I first got here, you kept to yourself and protected your empire. As the years have gone by, collaboration has become more and more necessary. I think a lot of that has to do with money and receiving grants. To a certain degree outside enterprises like NIH and NSF like to see multidisciplinary grant applications.

Bascom Hill has also started to ask more questions, build more user groups and try to get outside opinion more. I didn’t see any of that when I first got here. But now that I’ve been here I see a lot more committees initiated by Bascom Hill. For example, inventory control became a campus-wide project, and they reached out across campus to learn how departments did this.

Where are you from originally?

I’m from Alabama originally. I moved to Madison with my folks (editor’s note: Carl’s father, Roland Johnson, was conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra; mother Arline Hanke Johnson was a founding director of the Madison Opera). I went to college here, then got a job in California working in the clean room industry. My family brought me back to Madison.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at work?

I used to run a CSA — Gathering Places — we were one of the first back in the early ’90s. My wife and I did it for about 10 years. I gave it up in the early 2000s when I stopped looking forward to spring. I was still working at Waisman Center full-time, and then I’d come home and plant 400 pepper plants, which can be fun but which can also be wearing when you’re also raising a family. I still have too big a garden, and I still have a big community of friends in the organic gardening movement. It’s a fun thing to do — to get together with cheesemakers, bakers.

I also play the violin. I can play a lot of styles, so I try to blend in with whoever is there. And my wife and I have been trying to travel more in the winters.