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David Johnston

Non-traditional student puts the pieces
  of the geological puzzle together

By Christine Murray

David Johnston, a geological sciences major and father of three, realizes that his college experience is not a typical one.

“As an older student, I have a different worldview,” the 29-year-old Binghamton native said. “I’m here because I want to be, and I’m learning things that I’m excited about.”

Johnston, however, wasn’t always excited about geology. He began his college career at SUNY Broome when he was 20 and focused on biology. While he had taken chemistry and physics courses as well, he did not take a geology course until coming to Harpur College.

“I started at Binghamton and I was taking both paleobiology and cellular biology, and the paleobiology class was taught by a geology professor. It turned out to really be a geology-focused class,” the senior said with a laugh. “I realized that even though the cellular biology class was interesting, it wasn’t for me, and I was really enjoying this geology class.”

The switch for Johnston from biology to geological sciences was easy after that.

“Geology is the most interdependent science. It’s a multidiscipline science and that’s the most exciting thing for me,” Johnston said. “You need all of the pieces of the puzzle, chemistry, physics and biology.”

As Johnston pieces together the puzzle, he has the support of his Harpur geology professors.

“The professors here are incredible, knowledgeable and so helpful,” Johnston said. “I think all of the professors know how to have fun in their field and get their work done at the same time. It’s incredibly inspiring to see that.”

For Johnston, this has inspired his interdisciplinary research on creating 3-D interactive structure models for educational purposes. Using geospatial software to create 3-D models that map out data and information, Johnston is working with the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science to print models that can be used interactively by students.

While the initial models will be used for teaching, in the future this project could have research implications once it has been fully developed.

“My side of things is creating models to be printed by the Watson School’s 3-D printers,” Johnston said. “We’ve got this 3-D seismic analysis for subsurface matter and we’ve got this 3-D geospatial analysis for surface matter, and I’m taking those and combining them together to make an image of the subsurface and surface geology of a given space or location. We are making these simple educational blocks using this software so that we can cross some of the boundaries and figure out how to create these models that can actually show what is happening to these rocks and faults.”

Johnston is working with Assistant Professor Jeff Pietras on the project.

“Dave is a very intelligent student who is always thinking beyond the limits I place on assignments or lecture topics,” Pietras said. “While his ‘outside the box’ thinking has kept me on my toes, I really appreciate his interest in learning. Although his family demands have lead to periods of missed attendance, they have not reduced his ability to learn course material. I tell all my students: ‘Life happens. We will make it work.’”

While juggling the stresses of senior year, independent research and family life is challenging, Johnston is sure to keep things in perspective.

“When I stress about work and having time to get everything done, I’m saved by the fact that all of my professors are used to things happening on a 4.6-billion-year time scale,” Johnston said jokingly.

Still, Johnston knows that having a family gives him an extra push to succeed: “I took time off before starting college, and so I know why I want to learn. I want my kids to know that I’m successful and happy and I’m pushing myself to succeed for them.”

And though most parents might be flustered by the never-ending questions from their children, Johnston embraces his children’s curiosity.

“I’m learning about all of the things that my kids are curious about,” he said. “I’m never exhausted by their questions. I know why the sky is blue, and I can explain it to them.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17