Professor rocks global adventures

From Australia to China to inland Mongolia; the Galapagos Islands to the ancient islands of Hudson Bay; to the European tour through Sweden, France, England, Norway and Spain, it’s difficult to name a country that Geosciences Professor Markes Johnson has not visited, and he is still marking Xs on the map.

Johnson’s interest in the geosciences can be traced back to his childhood, when he decided as a 10-year-old that he wanted to study fossils, particularly oceanic fossils. He specializes in ancient islands and has been able to combine his two passions of traveling and geological fieldwork with teaching at Williams for nearly three and a half decades.

As a geologist, much of Johnson’s fieldwork involves traveling abroad, an interest he discovered the summer before his senior year of high school when he participated in a foreign exchange program. He spent the summer living with a family in Portugal, an experience that not only introduced him to the wonders of traveling but also to the ocean, an interest that had captivated him as a boy. “This is when I decided I really wanted to see the world,” Johnson said. He might not have known at the time as a 17-year-old growing up in Iowa, but Portugal would only be the beginning of his diverse travels, as he would end up choosing a profession geared towards traveling and researching abroad.

The small undergraduate population is what drew Johnson to Williams. “In retrospect, I’m really glad I ended up at a small liberal arts college, which offers many more opportunities than larger universities populated with graduate students,” he said. Johnson believes that working with undergraduates allows professors to bond with the students through tutorial programs and senior theses. “Williams is a good place to work. The students are smart and dedicated, and the high quality of senior thesis work is unique.”

While he has enjoyed the campus and college community the past 34 years, Johnson is rarely on campus during January. He has opted out of spending the entirety of the winter in Williamstown, using the Winter Study term to travel abroad with students.
One of his most memorable trips occurred while traveling with two thesis students, David Skinner ’86 and Ken Macleod ’86, in July 1985. The group traveled to the islands of the Hudson Bay area in Canada and unexpectedly discovered an enormous trilobite (a now-extinct marine fossil group) 50 centimeters long. When describing the discovery, Johnson said, “I gave out a huge yelp and the group thought I was injured, but it was just my excitement.” The trilobite is now on display at the National Museum in Ottawa.
For Johnson’s newest project, he will team up with his wife Gudveig – also a geologist – in Portugal, working specifically in Cape Verde, the Madeira Islands and the Canary Islands. He has received a grant that will support the project for the next three years.
Johnson has yet to lose interest in traveling. For decades he has traveled the globe, each trip resulting in new adventures, new friendships, new appreciation for different cultures and new memorable experiences. As a constant traveler, you never know where you will end up or what you will end up discovering. This sense of spontaneity that exists in all forms of traveling, coupled with his fossil research and factual and data collection, keeps Johnson going.

Johnson explained that if someone had told him as a teenager that he would have the opportunity to travel to so many diverse regions throughout the world, he would not have believed it. “As a product of the Cold War and growing up during a time of tense relations with Russia and China, I would have thought there is no way anyone would let me go to these places,” he said. Johnson has not simply gone to places that have shared tense political relations with the United States: He has experienced and participated in their unique social and cultural traditions. A lover of food, he has enjoyed the authentic meals at friends’ houses throughout Europe and Asia, and he also reciprocates the gesture, inviting foreign colleagues to his home for meals. Traveling has allowed him to develop friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds and establish connections in various countries; it even introduced him to wife, whom he met in Norway. “My experience as an exchange student made me want to meet people from different cultures. We may all have different political views,” he said, “but we are all geologists and we all speak the same language.”