Better Living Through Chemistry

Shirley Johnson
Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Gonzaga alum Shirley Johnson ('69)

February 15, 2023
University Advancement

When Shirley Johnson (’69) was a little girl growing up on a cattle ranch in Montana, she had no idea her life’s path would eventually take her to Gonzaga University, around the globe, and to be the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize along with her colleagues at the International Atom Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. What she did know for certain—from the time she was just a preschooler—was that she wanted to be a scientist.


“I was three years old, and I knew,” she recalled. “It made life a little easier as I made decisions. I knew that was where I was going.”


The one-room schoolhouse she attended through the eighth grade was so small, she was usually the only one in her class. When she attended Girls Central High School in Butte, she confirmed to herself that the sciences were to be her direction.


“I helped start the science club at my all-girls school,” Johnson shared proudly. She found there weren’t many other girls seeking out the same path, but those who did became important allies. “My friends and I petitioned to get physics and a fourth year of math added,” she said.


Catholic education was important to Johnson’s mother, who was a graduate of Holy Names College. Johnson visited with her mother but was disappointed to find that Holy Names didn’t offer any science majors at the time. While in Spokane, they decided to visit Gonzaga, where Johnson ultimately chose to begin her journey.


One of only seven girls in her first-year chemistry majors’ class, Johnson was the last woman standing at the time of graduation. Having four brothers, she was used to the gender imbalances and had developed ways of dealing with it.


“I just did the work—but it was a struggle. Many of the Gonzaga Prep guys had already experienced these courses in high school and our freshman classes were just review for them. I was isolated, especially being in the women’s dorm. Things have really changed now, which is wonderful.”


Originally dual majoring in chemistry and physics, Johnson’s favorite place was the laboratory. She enjoyed the instrumentation and hands-on time so much, she switched to focus on chemistry, with a minor in the required philosophy.


“The philosophy courses were really great because they taught me about thinking processes, logic, and how other people thought” she said. “It helped develop my analytical mind and capabilities for problem-solving. I find now that I drive people crazy because I don’t memorize—I can’t. But I can know certain facts and go through a process of coming to an answer through a deductive path. That’s something I appreciate that came about through my Gonzaga education.”


Johnson was recruited from Gonzaga by the Hanford Nuclear Site for what she thought was a chemist’s position along with five male chemists from other universities.


“When I got there, I discovered I’d been hired into a technician’s role,” scowled Johnson. “We all had the same degree but being a woman, they were concerned that I would quit if I got married.” Thankfully, her colleagues and lab manager all rallied to help rectify the situation.


Discrimination struck again in the late 1970s when Johnson saw an opportunity with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—an agency under the umbrella of the United Nations based in Vienna. She secured the U.S. State Department nominations for position after position but kept getting rejected as she watched her male colleagues with the same qualifications get accepted. Eventually, she took matters into her own hands, buying a plane ticket and heading for Vienna.


“They needed a chemist who knew nuclear reprocessing, and we are few and far between, so I was hired,” she said with a smile. “I found that my education and work experience had a real application in assuring that member States were adhering to their nuclear non-proliferation agreements. I was soon recognized for taking on difficult tasks and was promoted rather quickly. There are a lot more women in those roles today—more than 30 percent of the nuclear safeguards inspectors are women now, with a goal of 50 percent.”


Johnson was one of the first nuclear inspectors (again the only woman) who went into Iraq in 1991 to investigate the Iraqi clandestine nuclear weapons program and to remove or render inoperable all parts of it (photo of Shirley and her fellow inspectors below).


Shirley Johnson in Iraq


“My specific assignments were to determine the extent of the Iraqi’s program to develop a plutonium nuclear weapon, and to establish the flow of nuclear material through their various nuclear processes,” she explained. “Although the Iraqi officials were not very truthful in their declaration, they did try to appear cooperative, which meant there was little hostility at that time toward us as inspectors.”


The work of the IAEA and Johnson had major spotlights turned on them when they were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. The crystals that she and her colleagues received are engraved with ‘International Atomic Energy Agency, Nobel Peace Prize 2005,’ which she pointed out on the award she keeps in her office. “I keep the actual certificate framed on my wall,” she said.


The IAEA had been doing its work of monitoring the non-proliferation treaties and agreements in countries throughout the world since the early 1970s. As a result, many of those countries abandoned their early nuclear weapons programs. Currently the IAEA carries out inspection work in around 183 countries, which continues to help in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Their work has been with little fanfare, but consistent. Johnson recalled that Iraq put the team out in the limelight and on the front page as they inspected sites there, and later pursued inconsistencies with Iran, and North Korea. Although their work in Iraq brought the IAEA to the attention of the public, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded for the cumulative work over 30 years.


Later, Johnson led a multi-million-dollar project to implement international safeguards in a commercial-sized nuclear reprocessing plant in northern Japan—the only plant of its size outside of a nuclear weapon state. This type of a process can be misused as part of a plutonium weapons program and is therefore, “very sensitive and the implementation of safeguards is very, very difficult,” said Johnson.


Immediately upon retiring from the IAEA, and on her way her back home to the family ranch in Montana, she spent a month at Princeton University writing a reference document on safeguarding a reprocessing plant in a nuclear weapons state under a Fissile Materials (Cutoff) Treaty. She quickly began receiving requests to work on project for the Department of Energy.


“I needed to start my own company, so I launched Tucker Creek Consulting, PLLC,” she said. “And now, in addition to my government work, I lecture at universities and partner with organizations around the country.”


Johnson’s adventures took her all over the world and taught her many lessons along the way—she knows how to navigate cobra-covered walkways and scorpion-infested showers, is skilled at eating unidentifiable foods, and traversing while lost with no signs in English. Also, the early years of discrimination strengthened her determination and the importance of advocating for oneself as a woman in science.


“The advice I give most often when mentoring is, ‘don’t get discouraged. Whether in your studies or in your career—there will always be bumps, and that’s good. Perseverance will help you get through the bad situations, as will good relationships with others.’”


She also stresses something she gained from her Gonzaga education as key to success: communication.


“It’s really important to be able to write or speak about what you do,” she said. “Nobody else will do it for you, you must sell yourself and your work. That can be hard as a scientist or engineer, because if you’re like me, you love to be in the lab working but dislike writing about it. Be a good team member. Do community service. Join a professional society and be involved. Network, go to conferences and symposiums—there is funding out there if you look for it.”


Taking it one step further, Johnson herself made funding available to help Gonzaga students in STEM with her gift of support through the John and Joan Bollier Family Center for Integrated Science and Engineering.


“School was really hard,” she admitted. “When I saw how much effort Gonzaga was putting into helping women get into the sciences, I wanted to be part of it. I’m very proud of my Jesuit education and proud to be a Gonzaga grad.”  With a laugh, she added, “everybody in Vienna called it ‘Gorgonzola.’”


Now, Shirley’s name is on display at Gonzaga in the halls of the Bollier Center. You can join her by making your own gift of support for the next generation of STEM leaders at Plus, your gift of any size will qualify you for membership in the Christopher Clavius, S.J., Society, which celebrates those whose appreciation for STEM matches Gonzaga’s commitment.

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