‘Dr. J’ steps into the spotlight

Mention Marjorie Johnson’s name in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and the Western University professor’s students and colleagues will eagerly share stories of her teaching, guidance and leadership.

Last week, the entire nation heard her story as Johnson, known to students as Dr. J, was awarded the highest teaching honour in Canada – a 3M National Teaching Fellowship.

“We are very in awe of her,” Francis Chan said of his colleague. “Not only does she have the personality and ability to be a leader in teaching and education, but she’s a wonderful role model because of her passion for teaching and compassion for learners.”

Professors Chan and Peter Haase, Johnson’s “next-door neighbours” in the Medical Sciences Building, took notice of her incomparable dedication when she joined the department almost 20 years ago. They also saw a colleague who went the extra mile in the lab and classroom, doing it for the students, not for recognition or praise.

“We meant to nominate her (for the fellowship) for a number of years now, but she’s just one of those personalities; she’s very humble and didn’t want us to do anything for her,” Chan said, adding Johnson inspires students and colleagues alike.

Chan continued, “It’s not just the students for Marjorie. Anyone who comes to talk to her would be amazed by how much attention she gives to make sure that they learn. Learning from professors is one thing, but learning from someone who cares about you and how you learn is very unique and personal.”

Under Johnson’s leadership as the director of the department’s graduate program, Clinical Anatomy at Western has flourished, Chan said. In 2006, the program had only three MSc students; today, the program is highly sought after, with 20 MSc students and five PhD students attracting significant funding.

But Johnson’s students aren’t just reaping the benefits of her dedicated efforts.

“She’s like our mom in the program. She’s very relatable and she has an open door policy. As my supervisor, I know that if I ever needed anything, I could talk to her about it, but I know if you asked anyone in the program, they’d say the same – that she’s like our second mom,” said Katie Losenno, one of Johnson’s MSc students.

She added Johnson’s care and attention is present in the classroom as well.

“She is just so passionate about teaching. She always finds a way to relate the (material) to something everyone can understand. In the lab she’s always in there, right beside you and she’s always there if you have a question to give you a full explanation.”

If you ask Johnson about this approach, she’ll say she’s just being herself.

“I try to be a person as opposed to a teacher up there that knows everything, because I don’t,” she said with a laugh.

“I like to gather stories from them and that’s kind of the neat part about being in a lab where you can just talk around the table. You get to know their stories a little bit and you get to know a little bit about how they learn. It becomes a little bit like a family.”

The honour of a 3M National Teaching fellowship is somewhat overwhelming, Johnson said. It’s the little things that make a difference for her – the thank-you notes, kind comments and students eager to introduce her to family at convocation.

One particular gesture stands out, she added.

“I remember one moment after a final exam, a student came up to me and handed his paper to me and said ‘From now on, when I think of Dr. J, I will think of you and not the basketball player.’”

In 1986, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher education and 3M Canada created the fellowship to honour exceptional contributions to teaching and leadership at Canadian universities. Fellowship recipients exemplify the highest ideals of teaching and scholarship excellence in the country.

Recent Western winners include Mike Atkinson (Psychology), Colin Baird (Chemistry), David Bentley (English), Francis Chan (Anatomy & Cell Biology), Alan Gedalof (English) and Madeline Lennon (Visual Arts).



  • Marshall Beier, Department of Political Science, McMaster University;
  • Adrian Chan, Department of Systems and Computer Engineering, Carleton University;
  • A.R. ‘Elango’ Elangovan, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria;
  • Sarah Forgie, Department of Pediatrics, University of Alberta;
  • Marjorie Johnson, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Western University;
  • Charles Lucy, Department of Chemistry, University of Alberta;
  • Toni Samek, School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta;
  • Susan Vajoczki, School of Geography and Earth Sciences, McMaster University;
  • Connie Varnhagen, Department of Psychology, University of Alberta; and
  • Fiona Walton, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island.