“We cannot keep this planet healthy if we don’t begin to understand and appreciate it,” says Dr. Marc Johnson, an associate professor of biology at UTM. Alongside researching the ecological and evolutionary forces that explain the diversity of life on Earth, Johnson works to expand children’s passion and understanding of the natural world.
Growing up, Johnson always knew that he wanted to study nature, which led to his career as a biologist. When Johnson was only three years old, his grandmother bought the last house at the tip of Presqu’ile Provincial Park, a small peninsula about two hours east of Mississauga. Johnson noticed that the peninsula had an amazing number of wildlife habitats for such a small area. The house was close to, what was at the time, a nature museum. Johnson would walk through the path and talk to naturalists all day long.
At the age of nine, Johnson booked a meeting with the head naturalist and asked how he could become a naturalist himself. She talked to him about the different career paths and the diverse people who worked for her, explaining that many went to the University of Guelph to study various biology aspects. So, by the age of nine, Johnson had created a blueprint for himself to study biology at the University of Guelph to become a biologist and work for the ministry of natural resources. This was the beginning of his journey.
Today, Johnson and his wife, Reagan Johnson, co-lead the Riverwood Junior Naturalist Club that “connect kids with the Riverwood Conservancy and nature within their community, including children coming from all walks of life.” Johnson states his reason for leading the club is the “passion [he had] as a kid but [having] nowhere to go to figure out more about the natural world, other than Presqu’ile Provincial Park.”
There was no naturalist club around when Johnson was growing up, so he “did not have that outlet [he] needed as a kid.” Johnson’s second reason is that at the age of 17, he was hired as a park naturalist at Algonquin Provincial Park for the summer, and this is what he believed was the pinnacle of his career choice. Johnson believes he “could have stayed there for the rest of [his] life and would have been happy but [he] soon realized that he wanted to shoot even higher.”
As part of his job as a naturalist in Algonquin, Johnson ran children’s programs on different topics, from Algonquin’s history to fossil life. He found this very rewarding because he was “very good at entertaining the kids and getting them excited about nature.” Upon pursuing academia and going into the research field, he temporarily ceased his work with children.
Recently, Johnson realized that “the condition of the world, environmentally, is rapidly declining and the people that are interested in nature and the environment is dwindling, [especially among] kids with skill sets that understand the history and biology of the natural world.”
Johnson believes that the problem is only further highlighted by the fact that “over 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities and so we have nice areas around us, but it is hard for us to connect with them sometimes unless we have someone to show us around.” Johnson wanted to help strengthen this connection by addressing urban environmental issues. With that in mind, and with the help of Dean Amrita Daniere and former principal Ulli Krull, the Centre for Urban Environments came to be. This initiative’s fundamental component is community engagement, which later resulted in Johnson’s “Biology in your Backyard” series on YouTube.
In March, with the provincial shut-down order in place as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, conservations and parks were also closed. As a result, it became increasingly difficult for children to explore nature, as most kids did not have access to parks during that period. Johnson’s wife, a kindergarten early childhood educator, recorded and uploaded videos for her students to watch. This inspired Johnson to begin making YouTube videos to show kids how to connect with nature while at home in their own “backyard.” The videos involved Johnson’s family observing and learning more about the natural world around them.
Johnson believes that by “connecting kids with nature and understanding the environment around us,” it will benefit both children and the environment. Moreover, Johnson believes that “it is important for people to know the careers that are out there.” Johnson’s children, Mae and Oscar, are often involved in his research and have come along with him on his journey. From simple outdoor activities like camping, to joining him as he travels during his sabbatical to the Galapagos, South America, and Japan, they have learned to appreciate their surroundings.
Johnson affirms that we must direct more attention and resources to preserve the environment as it determines our health, air quality, and the food we eat. In both his current and future initiatives, he “hope[s] to inspire young people to help figure out how we can live on this planet sustainably because as of right now, we are not doing the best job.”
Johnson dreams of creating “a national and global movement among youth to become more interested and involved in nature, where each town [will] have a junior naturalist club that [can be attended] any day of the week.” He hopes to have an impact on the students he trains and the undergraduates that look to him for inspiration to “become more educated on evolutionary biology.”