Five Questions with Michelle Johnson

Michelle Erin Johnson embraces the uncertainty of life.

Name: Michelle Erin Johnson
Position: Assistant director, Research and Innovation Solutions
Years at Gillings: 1.5 years


Michelle enjoys some amazing weather in downtown Durham.

Michelle enjoys some amazing weather in downtown Durham.

What I do at Gillings (and why I love it): We describe our office as having three goals: promote research, foster innovation and entrepreneurship, and manage programs funded by the Gillings Gift. I do things in all three areas, but I primarily spend my workdays getting to know our students and faculty, connecting them to campus-wide innovation and entrepreneurship resources, and helping them to understand what innovation is – besides a buzzword!

Innovation is really just a word to describe doing something differently. I feel like universities often teach students how to solve problems in very traditional ways. While that approach is OK some of the time, for the really big problems we need to teach students to lead rather than to follow, to embrace creativity, to collaborate with others in different disciplines and with different skill sets, to be eager to try new things and to be comfortable with failure. Innovation is about solving problems without a script. The Gillings School wants its students and faculty to embody this “innovative” mindset, and my job is to encourage that to happen. I find it rewarding to be a part of this movement! I am so proud of our innovators, and I can’t wait to see them go on to accomplish amazing things.


To start a conversation with me, ask about: artificial intelligence and automation! I love listening to podcasts and reading articles by folks like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m currently taking classes in databases and health informatics, and I can see how research and healthcare will be dramatically affected once these concepts become more mainstream. We are on the precipice of major changes in the way we relate to and train for work. The question is: How can we use data to improve our lives rather than make them worse?

I also love talking about music. I’m a classically trained pianist – I started lessons when I was five years old and I performed quite a bit when I was younger. I’ve recently started doing more improvisation; I like to pretend that I’m coming up with the soundtrack for an epic new video game. I took up the accordion in college after a friend found one in his attic. (The accordion is super entertaining to break out at parties!) A few years ago, I started cello lessons, but I’m not very good. I might join the “Really Terrible Orchestra of the Triangle” next year as a way to get more practice in – yes, this is a real thing!


Michelle babysits a labradoodle puppy while its owner attends class at the Gillings School.

Michelle babysits a labradoodle puppy while its owner attends class at the Gillings School.

I grew up: in rural Connecticut, in a tiny town along I-84, about 1.5 hours outside of Boston. I chose to attend Boston University for undergrad because I wanted to experience city life and meet people who weren’t the same as me. I ended up staying in Boston for more than a decade! It’s very cold there, though, and the cost of living is too high. After the especially horrible winter of 2015 (when Boston got 109 inches of snow), I decided it was time to find a new college town to live in! Chapel Hill hit that sweet spot of being not-too-far from family and having much better weather. I didn’t know anyone here, so I scheduled a solo trip to explore and see if it would be a good fit. When I drove away from the airport, everything was so green and flowering and beautiful. I was immediately sold.


If I could learn the truth about one thing, I’d ask: whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. I think the answer is yes, but I’d love to know for sure.


The best advice I ever received is: something that took me years to figure out for myself. It’s this: “If you have a really complex decision to make, and you can’t figure out what to do, just give it some time.” Give yourself space to breathe and allow your brain to take a break from churning – the best solution for you will make itself clear eventually. I debated whether to leave Boston for three years before I finally took the leap. That last snowstorm flipped the switch, and I knew it was time to go! It’s not always easy to accept that you can’t solve every problem quickly, but I’m trying to get better at sitting with that discomfort and embracing the uncertainty of life.