The Lesson the President of The Ohio State University Learned When Her Life Was Reset

The Lesson the President of The Ohio State University Learned When Her Life Was Reset

Kristina M. Johnson
President Kristina M. Johnson, The Ohio State University

Our M.O. at Career: Reset is typically to provide our readership with a few top tips or insights on the topic at hand, often on how to reset during a challenging situation. Recently, I had an opportunity to interview The Ohio State President Kristina Johnson, winner of the 2021 IEEE Mildred Dresselhaus Medal. When asked about one of her resets, she didn’t talk about one of her many patents or a bump in her career path. Instead, she told us about when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, cancer of the lymph system, during her first year as a grad student. So, this week, instead of sharing a to-do list to help you climb that corporate ladder, we will take a step back and share the story of an invention which not only saved her life but also paved the way for her future.

The Creation of the Medical Linear Accelerator

While we might expect plenty of idle talk at social gatherings, this was not the case for Henry Kaplan, M.D. “In the 1950s, I began to hear cocktail party conversations about an interesting new atom smasher being developed on the campus by Bill Hanson and Edward Ginzton and their colleagues,” Kaplan recalled. And we should be very grateful that this conversation caught his attention because Kaplan soon became convinced that this tool could be the next step for cancer treatment. Three men from different fields came together — Henry Kaplan, radiologist, Edward Gunston, electrical engineer, and Mitchel Weissbluth, physicist. In time, this collaboration resulted in creating the medical linear accelerator, which used extreme x-rays from a cobalt source. In 1956, they treated their first patient, a two-year-old boy with retinoblastoma and saved his eye. Twenty-three years later, that technology saved Dr. Johnson’s life.

The Unanticipated Lesson

Before Kaplan’s breakthrough in 1956, Hodgkin’s Disease had been a fatal diagnosis. Receiving this diagnosis and treatment completely uprooted Dr. Johnson’s active life at school. “It was also a major disruption that took six months of my life to overcome. What got me through it was the strong support of my family and my college network of friends, colleagues, and faculty.” One thing that did not change was her inquisitive mind. She learned about her treatment plan. She needed surgery, four months of radiation, and in the end, she missed almost an entire year of school. She also looked into the genesis story of her radiation treatment, and she realized that cross-disciplinary research saved her life. During our interview, she said that this fact would forever be burned into her mind. “When we pool our resources, our knowledge and our research, we are far more likely to succeed in triumphing over life’s challenges,” Dr. Johnson said. 

The New Application in our Current Reset

Amidst this pandemic, Dr. Johnson has been leaning into this lesson learned and her own experience as she helps guide students’ ongoing education. It has undoubtedly been a challenging and complicated time. Still, she has offered a message of hope in a message to the students saying, “When I was able to return full time to my studies and research, I was so glad that I did not give up. I learned something fundamental from that experience: Accomplishments mean so much more when you have to work extra hard for them and to overcome adversity to reach your goals, like graduating from college.” And again she noted the support system she leaned on that helped her get through that hard time — her group for collaboration.  That same network will help support you through the COVID-19 crisis.

Yes, we have indeed strayed from the beaten path this week. However, when we are facing hardship and division from so many sides, I hope President Johnson’s message of collaboration and hope will resonate. Because I firmly agree with her when she says we are much more likely to succeed when we can find a way to work together.


Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.


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