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Bethel Remembers Adam Johnson

Bethel Remembers Adam Johnson

Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Adam Johnson died on April 10.

Many people at Bethel and in the field of neuroscience agree that Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Adam Johnson was one of the most brilliant people they had ever met. But Johnson shrugged off the attention; to him, work centered on teaching and mentoring students, and he simply hoped his widespread connections in the academic world would lead to more opportunities for his students.

Johnson, 39, died on April 10 after an 8-year battle with cancer.

“The Bethel University community was elevated by Adam Johnson's life, and we are diminished by his death,” says Bethel University President Jay Barnes. “Adam's scholarship was widely praised beyond campus. He opened doors for summer research and doctoral programs for many students through his connections in the neuroscience community. He was a great colleague who brought faculty together across departmental lines, challenging our thinking and raising our vision for who we could be. Our hearts ache for his family and for his close friends among the faculty at this time of grief and loss. We were truly blessed by his time with us.”

Johnson held a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Minnesota. He had many publication credits related to his chosen field of study: memory and imagination in the hippocampus. He was connected to some of the greatest minds in neuropsychology, including May-Britt and Edvard Moser—who won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine—and Howard Eichenbaum at Boston University’s Center for Memory and Brain.

Psychology department chair and Johnson’s friend, Professor Joel Frederickson, remembers Johnson’s advisor from the University of Minnesota initially questioning why Adam had chosen to teach at Bethel versus a university with the highest level of research activity. “Adam was a brilliant neuroscientist,” says Frederickson. “I am tremendously thankful that he did choose us. He had a deep impact on many students here at Bethel, and he helped shepherd a healthy number of students into outstanding graduate programs. Selfishly, I am thankful he chose Bethel because my friendship with him is one that I will forever cherish. He felt much more like a brother to me than just a friend. His loss is painful.”

For Johnson, there was no place he would have rather been than Bethel. “I love to teach our students—they’re amazing,” he said during an interview for Bethel Magazine in 2017. “The quality of the students I get to work with here is the envy of some of my colleagues at research institutions across the country.”

With funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Johnson’s research lab group at Bethel spent summer 2017 at Boston University working with professors Eichenbaum and Marc Howard, as well as post-doctoral researchers and graduate students—a new endeavor for the NIH. “While the NIH does not have a history of funding undergraduate training programs, our program provides a truly innovative model for launching undergraduate students into the neurosciences,” Johnson wrote about the grant.

Psychology major Rachel Nordberg ’19 worked with Johnson during her Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) year at Bethel and chose to continue at Bethel because of the experience. She joined Johnson’s lab in Boston last summer. “Adam’s example and mentorship, both in academics and in life, has been the most important thing I’ve personally received from him,” says Nordberg.

Johnson’s support and encouragement of students went beyond psychology and neuroscience. A few summers ago, Johnson initiated a new tradition at Bethel: summer research lunches. Students from any department on campus could present their research projects to an interdisciplinary audience, which helped students develop skills in explaining their work to well-educated people, explains Dean of Natural and Behavioral Sciences Carole Young. “With those who possessed some expertise in related fields of study, Adam loved to sit down and delve into speculations on how the neural systems were functioning and on ways to do research and analysis that would better illuminate those functions. I feel privileged to have shared many such think‐sessions with him over the years, and they have proven to be extremely valuable to me personally.”

In addition to his research, teaching, and mentoring relationships, Johnson also cherished the intellectual and spiritual community among Bethel faculty. He even met his wife—Carrie Peffley, assistant professor of philosophy—at Bethel. Johnson relied on those friendships to help support and sustain him during the past eight years as he lived with cancer.

Johnson was also open with his students about his diagnosis. “I’d never personally known someone battling cancer, and to see Adam look death in the eye and tell it he’s going to fully live his life anyway has caused an impact I don’t truly know the extent of,” says Nordberg. “It’s humbling, really, to know that someone could do anything with the last years of his life, and he’s chosen to pour into you. So much of what Adam has done over the last year has been to set his lab up for when he is no longer here.”

Luke Horstman ’16 is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in optics at the University of New Mexico, and he recalls meeting Johnson to work on research while he was at the hospital receiving chemotherapy. “One evening, I arrived at the hospital and asked him how he was doing,” says Horstman. “He responded immediately that the chemo gave him the opportunity to get back at mosquitos. ‘How’s that?’ I asked. With a satisfactory grin on his face, he explained that if they bit him, they would surely die from all the chemicals in his blood. Even if his glass was completely empty, I think Adam would still try to convince us that it was, in fact, half full.”

Sarah Venditto ’14 was a physics major at Bethel who worked with Johnson on neuroscience research, and she credits him with launching her research career and helping her get into a neuroscience Ph.D. program at Princeton University. “To pave the way for future students, Adam strove to make neuroscience a real force at Bethel University,” Venditto says. “After years of hard work, a research‐focused neuroscience major now exists at the university. I have no doubt that the momentum started by his own passion and enthusiasm for research in neuroscience will continue through this program for many exciting years to come.”

Venditto adds that Johnson left a legacy through his research as well as “in all the students he's trained to be a part of the next generation of neuroscientists.”

Brad and Lynnette Peffley, Johnson’s parents-in-law, have established a Bethel scholarship in Johnson’s honor. “Adam had a profound interest in teaching and in his students, so it seemed to us that it would be most fitting to remember and honor him by helping students in the program at Bethel that he began,” the couple says. “We will remember Adam as a brilliant, yet humble and sweet young man who was devoted to learning as well as teaching. He was a beloved son, a devoted husband to our daughter, a fun person to be around, in addition to being the most intelligent person we have ever known. His strength and perseverence in spite of years of pain and suffering, and his sweet spirit amazed and inspired all of us. We loved him dearly.”

To contribute to the scholarship fund named for Johnson, visit Bethel's Giving page, select "Other," and enter "Adam C. Johnson Scholarship Fund." A memorial service for Johnson will be held at Bethel on April 19 from 11:15 a.m.–noon in the Bethel Seminary Chapel. A memorial service will also be held at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul on April 20 at 11:30 a.m.

(Editor’s Note: This story was updated on April 14.)