Zane Johnson, Ph.D.

Zane Johnson, Biology

While many kids don't pay much attention to nature beyond catching fireflies and skipping rocks, Zane Johnson found himself interested in the intricacies behind the natural world early in life. A native of Western Pennsylvania, Zane grew up in the region referred to by geographers as the Appalachian Mountain Section of the Ridge and Valley Physiographic Province, which served to spark what has been a lifetime of scientific curiosity.

During his childhood, Zane grew increasingly interested in the region’s woodlands and streams and the organisms that inhabited them, to the point where in elementary school he began collecting insects and fossils. He also relished his school’s trips to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which afforded him closer looks at the rich diversity of life of the past including dinosaurs and other prehistoric life.

“As I got older I became interested in the processes that account for the diversity of living things, in particular ecology and evolution, and my interest in rocks and fossils led me to explore Earth’s geologic workings and the field of paleontology,” he said. “Although I became a biologist by way of formal training, geology and paleontology are just as integral as biology to what I teach.”

Zane earned his B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, his M.S. from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and his Ph.D. from the University of North Texas before working as an ecologist from 1998-2003 with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Leetown, W.Va. He conducted research in various capacities over the years as well, studying stream ecology and the biodiversity of the macroinvertebrates of woodland habitats, and he has authored or co-authored nine peer-reviewed research articles, technical reports and book chapters to date.

Ultimately, Zane chose to pursue a career in higher education because he felt he could contribute to providing an educational experience that not only teaches field-specific content and skills, but one that is multidisciplinary. “I see that human knowledge is a vast continuum with many intersections,” he said. “I try to impart this to my students in the way that I draw from many seemingly disparate fields to teach science. Being a professor is as much an avenue to learn as it is to teach, and I learn more all the time from the questions that my students ask.”

Prior to joining the faculty at Lake Erie College in 2006, Zane taught during the 2002-2003 academic year as an adjunct professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., which overlapped with his last year with the USGS. He then taught for three years at the College of the Southwest in Hobbs, N.M., which is now the University of the Southwest. While he enjoyed these experiences, he was drawn to LEC largely due to the College’s liberal arts foundation, which many people consider to be its greatest asset.

As someone who considers himself to be not just a scientist but also a philosopher and a historian, Zane values a liberal arts education. For him, the liberal arts provide not only an educational experience with depth and scope, but also a platform for free thinking, which he views to be a necessity for civic and cultural awareness. “I would argue that all knowledge gained in classes has real-world application,” he said. “Thinking of the world as the universe, all knowledge has real-world application because all knowledge is derived from experience of the world.”

In addition to the College’s academics, Zane was interested in coming to LEC because of the surrounding region’s diversity of natural areas. In Lake County alone there is a mix of woodland assemblages, wetlands and meadows as well as a natural dunes area along Lake Erie, making for a wealth of potential outdoor learning experiences.

At the College, Zane teaches courses in biology, botany, forensic science and evolutionary biology, as well as in zoology, animal behavior, physical geology and issues in Western culture. He is personally most interested in topics such as the effects of disturbance on aquatic community structure and function, woodland ecosystem biodiversity, and the history and philosophy of natural science, but he views all topics as having learning potential.

Overall, Zane’s favorite thing about LEC is the small size of the College, which has given him to opportunity to both engage more directly with his students and to teach in many fields. “The comparatively small class sizes provide opportunities to engage with students in a more personal setting and better gauge how well they understand the topics,” he said.  “I’ve gotten to teach not just in the sciences but in philosophy courses for the Honors Program as well, which continuously augments my knowledge and invigorates me.”

For prospective students considering attending LEC, Zane stresses the value of the academic growth potential that exists at this institution. One example of this value came recently in the form of a new environmental science program, which Zane spearheaded alongside Assistant Professor Allen Fazenbaker from the School of Education. Along with Dr. Steven Reynolds, the pair succeeded in developing a new environmental science major that includes a strong science core as well as courses in environmental policy and environmental philosophy. “In addition to being a major that provides field-specific technical experience, this new major nurtures the liberal arts tradition here and is an exciting opportunity for future students,” he said.