Faculty Perspectives: David Johnston

David Johnston headshot.

David Johnston, Professor of the Practice of Marine Conservation Ecology, Marine Science and Conservation

Bass Connections Project Teams: Digital Cities and Polysensing Environments; Digital Cities and Cyberarchaeology; Smart Archaeology; Developing Rapid, Cost-effective Methods for Evaluating Coastal Biodiversity and Resilience; Deep Learning and Remote Sensing for Coastal Resilience: Rapid and Automated Coastal Monitoring to Inform Community Recovery from Storm Events; Using Remote Sensing Tools to Address Conflicts between Humans and Sea Turtles in the Cayman Islands; Biogeographic Assessment of Antarctic Coastal Habitats; Belugas: Sentinels of Climate Change in the Arctic

David Johnston has been leading Bass Connections teams into the field to tackle environmental challenges since 2016. His 2023-2024 team will examine how marine ecosystems are evolving in the face of climate change, using belugas in the Churchill region of Hudson Bay in Canada as model organisms. He shared his perspective and advice during a Bass Connections team leader orientation in January 2023.

All Hands On Deck

Over the past seven years, Bass Connections has been a key component of my lab’s research, as well as a really important part of my teaching. I’ve been a leader on several Bass Connections teams and contributed to others, and this work has led to deeply rewarding experiences both for the students and myself. 

Five students on a boat with a drone.
Photos courtesy of David Johnston

Most of my teams focus on a particular environmental problem, such as climate change, sea level rise, marine wildlife and the effects of hurricanes on coastlines. My 2023-2024 team will focus on what's happening in the Arctic, looking at sea ice decline and how that affects organisms that live in the coastal ocean and the people that interact with them. 

In general, our teams examine challenges in the biology and ecology realm, while also integrating engineering and law or policy. We begin by focusing in on an important ecological question, then examine how we might address it using engineering, and how it could be applied in an environmental management context and what the legal or ethical implications might be. 

A lot of our teams have very significant hands-on components that include students working with specific equipment to collect data in the field. We also do a lot of data harvesting from sources out in the world. We begin with plenary sessions where all students are together learning the same things, but in the second semester, students often take control and ownership of a particular aspect of the project.

Mentor-Up, Mentor-Down

Our teams really embrace vertical integration and include faculty, postdocs, Ph.D. students, master’s students and undergraduates from a variety of programs across the university. We also work closely with external partners, who are usually either academics that are working in the field in the area we’re studying, or natural resource managers. 

Students sit together on the grass with a ground rover.This opportunity to have a “mentor-up, mentor-down” arrangement is fantastic. When you have good communication, your students learn to be good mentors, and they also learn to provide good feedback to their mentors in the program. I've learned a lot from them over the years, and ultimately, this structure fosters a more modern idea of what leadership is. 

One strategy I use to encourage and energize students is asking them to take leadership of an aspect of the project. This helps students learn that they can lead from within a team or organization, and they respond really well to that. 

Building Team Community

While we usually recruit students with at least a basic biology background, we really work to try and have a balance of technical versus non-technical folks. That kind of balance helps things move along faster and more efficiently and leads to a better experience for everyone. The non-technical folks bring things to the projects that we had never expected, which is really fantastic. 

Drone on grass by water.We'll often have a project manager, whether a Ph.D. student, a postdoc, staff, faculty or combination thereof. In some cases, we have subteams: students may identify particular questions they want to work on, and group up and work on those issues together. 

Another component that has been vital for our success has been generating community. Building community can always be a challenge, and while it has been more challenging over the last few years with the pandemic, we have still been able to pull it off. Having a team charter co-produced by the group, setting aside the time to actually get people to talk about how they want to work together has been extremely helpful. 

Even more important is setting up expectations for communication. One of the most critical things for us has been making sure that everyone understands what the pace and cadence of those communications needs to be, and working together to decide on that so that everybody has a shared vision they can adhere to.

Two people on a boat sending out a drone.Part of our community creation has focused on trying to have some type of field experience or trip that the team will go through together, ideally at the beginning of the project. This is the place where students really come together and bond. For example, we took students to the Wright Brothers memorial in Kitty Hawk for some of our remote sensing and drone-based work, which was a really inspirational trip. They got to understand some of the foundations of aviation, and it really helped to bring them together. 

The second part of the process is maintaining that community. It’s easy for people to drift apart, especially now that we are often working, in our case, between the marine lab and main campus. Developing practices that help make sure that people are connected is key. We use Discord as a tool to have this sort of persistent online communication. I would really recommend that people make use of an online tool like this to maintain persistent communication and bring people together.

See other faculty perspectives and learn how you can get involved in Bass Connections.