Purdue alum fights on the front lines of climate battles
By: Brian Wallheimer
Priscilla Johnson has spent much of her life on or around water. As a child in Maryland, she grew up along the largest estuary on the East Coast. She would swim and deep-sea fish with her father.
Water was a constant in Johnson’s life, and she loved it. Still does.
“I loved being able to actually touch water, recreate on it, understand how that life cycle works,” Johnson said.
And when you love something that much, you fight for it. That’s what she has done her entire career, and something she hopes to pass on to many more climate warriors.
"I was ready for climate change deniers, but I wasn’t ready to have to convince an MBA to part with money. We fight fear, and cost is the fear."
-- Priscilla Johnson
As a child, Johnson had visions of a career that was related to water in some way, though she wasn’t sure what it would be. At first she ignored the signs and focused on a potential career in film and television, but the water called her back, and Johnson earned a master’s degree and doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from Purdue.
Optimistic and energetic, Johnson thought that she would spend her time applying her engineering knowledge to the preservation, protection and conservation of water. She certainly did that, but she also found that the job was much more than she’d imagined.
“What I didn't know back then is that the environmental field is like warfare. People have resources to protect the environment, but they don’t want to use them for those purposes,” Johnson said. “I was ready for climate change deniers, but I wasn’t ready to have to convince an MBA to part with money. We fight fear, and cost is the fear.”
Johnson’s first major fight came against chemical company Dow, where she was hired to oversee water sampling near Saginaw Michigan. The company had been tasked with cleaning up the watershed there after contaminating it with dioxin.
"Any day can be your last, and it’s so important to leave behind seeds of inspiration for people."
-- Priscilla Johnson
While on maternity leave, Johnson said many of the water samples she was asked to verify were falsified, and when she refused to sign off, she was demoted. She lost a whistleblower lawsuit over the issue but helped bring the issues to light.
That experience, Johnson said, would help steel her for later work at Microsoft, where she was tasked with helping to make a company that uses millions of gallons of water per day “net positive water.” The company did things to replenish water in certain parts of the world, but it also uses the vast majority of its water to cool data centers, and Johnson wanted to reduce that.
That goal — just use less — was met with strong resistance, however.
“I helped pilot alternative technology for data centers and proved that they could be designed to use less water,” Johnson said. “But there was major pushback to adopting technology I had shown would work.”
In the end, Johnson said she was able to leapfrog to executives at higher levels who provided funding for her work.
“Proving that these technologies work and fighting for the money to do that is my legacy at Microsoft,” she said.
Now, Johnson is taking on new challenges. She is chief executive officer of EcoDaisy, a company that distributes a line of natural cleaning products she created.
But nearer to her warrior heart is work in training the next generation of environmentalists. That started when she was at an event at the University of Arizona and a Ph.D candidate thanked her for being an inspiration. That encouraged her to start mentoring more students with a goal of creating a more formalized organization to support those who want to become involved in the challenges associated with protecting the environment.
“It takes people by surprise, this type of work, because there is so much resistance,” Johnson said. “You don’t know the encouragement people need. When I heard from that student, I realized I needed to keep doing what I was doing and reach out to younger generations.
“The most important thing I have ever experienced is being a mentor,” Johnson added. “That responsibility is immense. Any day can be your last, and it’s so important to leave behind seeds of inspiration for people.”