Today, the Student Voice is meeting up with Tony Johnston of the Fermentation Science program. We’re talking wine, breweries, and how to commit to a lifetime of learning.
Thanks for agreeing to interview today! Can you tell us a little bit about your educational background?
Sure. I’ll start with my master’s degree. So I had gone to undergraduate school, gone into the military after I graduated, and then come back to get a master’s degree in Food Science. Then I worked in the food processing industry for six years and went back to graduate school again to get my doctorate. For my master’s degree, I had worked on thermal processing of foods, basically canning, and then the poultry processing industry, and finally I went into the refrigerated foods industry, making salad products that would be fresh and ready to eat. When I went back to get my doctorate, I thought “I really don’t want to study things that I already know; I want to learn something new.” I decided to study grape and wine production, and that was the gateway for studying fermentation because wine is a fermented product. I really enjoyed microbiology, and the concept of microorganisms being a good thing rather than a bad thing. In the food processing industry, microorganisms are the enemy, whereas, in the fermentation industry, they’re necessary to the process. So I finished my Ph.D. and came here to MTSU to teach.
“I really don’t want to study things that I already know; I want to learn something new.”
How did the Fermentation Science program come into being?
One of the first things that I did when I got here was to establish some courses in winemaking and wine appreciation, and there was a lot of interest in those classes, but they were non-credit classes that the general public could take. I taught those for several years, then about eight years ago, my department chair came to me and said: “You really need to make a credit course out of the wine appreciation class.” He thought there would be significant demand for the class. I finally agreed, and good grief, this class fills up every time it’s offered! Then I put together a wine science class. I take the students through the process of making wine, but it teaches more than that; it’s really about the scientific methods involved in wine. Not much later, I got a call requesting me to come in and talk to the provost, and it turned out he wanted me to put together a brewing program at MTSU. I told him that there are literally hundreds of brewing programs here in the U.S. today, so I suggested instead that we broaden the focus of the program into fermentation science, where brewing could be just one of the processes taught in the program. The provost agreed, and put me in charge of organizing the program. So now MTSU has a program that allows us to teach different fermentation methods. There are endless products that can be made through the process of fermentation, so our students have the opportunity to work in many different industries upon graduation. It’s a much more flexible degree than what’s offered at most other schools.
Tell us a little bit about the new brewery that’s coming to Murfreesboro that’s going to be integrated with the fermentation science program at MTSU?
Well, the owner and his partners were planning to build this brewery, and he’s an alumnus of this university and particularly this department, so he decided to call his alma mater and find students who might want to work in his brewery. At the time, they were looking to locate the brewery in Williamson County, but he called our office and talked to our department chair, who then referred him to me. I told him that I knew how much land costs over there, and if he really wanted to make the brewery a valuable learning tool for our department, he should consider locating it somewhere in Murfreesboro, closer to the school. At the time, Paula Mansfield had been hired in the development office, and my dean introduced him to Paula, who introduced him to a realtor here. They found the site where they’re currently building, and he said he instantly fell in love with it, so they decided to locate their brewery here in Murfreesboro instead.
Turning the focus back to you a little bit, when did you come to MTSU?
I started teaching here in the fall of 1995, so it’s been about twenty-three years!
Of all the classes that you teach at MTSU, if you could choose one for the entire student body to take, which one would you choose?
It would have to be Wine Appreciation. I tell my students that my wine appreciation class could end up being the class that you end up using the most for the rest of your life. Yes, I’m teaching about wine and how to taste wine, but you can apply the sensory skills that I teach to anything else that you consume. You see, we Americans tend to live frenetic lifestyles. Fast food, to me, is the archetypal example of our lives: we want something cheap and convenient, something that we eat quickly without really tasting or thinking about what we’re eating. It’s the same with our alcoholic beverages. I think the American conception of the proper way to consume beer is similar to that of distilled spirits: you just open your mouth and throw it back. But with wine, on the other hand, you have this perception that you’re supposed to do something special with it. I see this all the time with students. They don’t know what they’re supposed to do when they drink wine, but they know they’re supposed to do it slowly. I get to teach them how to slow down and appreciate wine, and that they can actually do that with any product. Just slowing down can really change your lifestyle! Another advantage of the class is that it gives you permission to spend the rest of your life learning about the product. One of the first things that I do in the class is take my students to a liquor store. I ask them, how many of you have been to a liquor store before? Of course, most of them raise their hands. I then ask them how many of them would be comfortable picking out a bottle of wine for a special dinner or event, and none of them say “yes.” They say they simply don’t know what they’re doing; there’s a mass of wine products on the market, and they’re unfamiliar with them. They don’t even know what they’re looking for, so I try to teach them how to identify what their personal preferences are. You need to understand what you’re doing when you walk into the store, and to not be afraid to read labels, ask questions, and look up information online. You need to learn how to make an informed choice, rather than just walking in and picking something randomly. That’s a potentially expensive gamble to make!
And there are going to be times in your life where you’re going to be asked to make a wine selection for a meal or bring wine to an event or to a friend’s house – and that can be scary. You’re not going to be an expert when you leave my class, but at least you’ve got some foundational information that will allow you to make an informed choice for those kinds of situations.
So you did a lot of work in the food industry before coming to MTSU. What was your favorite job before you came here to teach?
I really enjoyed my time working in research and development for the food industry. It was challenging work, and the end product of my effort was tangible. For example, I’d develop a particular food product and then it would be produced and hit the marketplace, and seeing people buying it and enjoying it was very rewarding. It’s great to see the outcome of your labor being enjoyed by others.
What kind of research and development did you do?
I spent some time as a food developer for one particular company, and basically, they would come to me with a given product and say “We need something to compete with this,” and I would try to come up with something that tasted similar to the product without using exactly the same ingredient statement that they used. I would do my lab work, come up with a product formulation and present it to the sales group, and they would taste it and tell me what they thought. We’d go back and forth until we had something that everybody was happy with, and then we’d put it on the market and see how it did. I thought it was really interesting, and a very creative process. It’s not like preparing something in your kitchen to be eaten immediately afterward; it’s quite a bit more challenging. You’ve got to formulate something that can be stored, shipping, put on the shelf, stored in people’s homes for a while, and still taste good when they’re ready to eat it. It was challenging but a lot of fun.
Going back to your student days, what was a lesson that you learned in college that you would impart to your students if you could?
Your undergraduate education is more about understanding the process of learning than becoming an expert in any particular subject. The content of your classes is important, but it’s even more important that you learn how to collect information for yourself, and how to ask the right questions and find out the answers that you want to know. When you launch yourself into the world, you may or may not go to work in your original career field, but that’s okay because you’ve become more adept at learning new things and picking up new skills.
I’ll use my mother as an example. My mother learned to type on a manual typewriter, but over the course of her career as a legal secretary, she saw the technology change from manual typewriters to electric typewriters, and later to PCs. My mom eventually wanted to get a PC, but computers are scary! She knew how to put her fingers to the keyboard, but everything else about the computer was scary and new. But she decided that she wanted to learn how to use the computer because it was important to her to be able to communicate with her family. So what’s the next big invention, after the personal computer? It’s the smartphone. If my mother had not wanted to make the transition from a typewriter to a computer, she wouldn’t have been able to later transition to a smartphone, or to other kinds of technology. She had plenty of friends her age who said “I’m never going to own a computer, I don’t want a smartphone, I don’t want to learn how to use those things”, and it limited their ability to communicate and connect with the world. That’s the difference between someone who chooses not to educate themselves and someone who does. It’s not just about formal classroom training; my mother never went to a class about how to use a computer, she just sat down and figured it out. That’s the most important lesson you can get from your education: how to adapt and learn continually throughout your life.
What’s one thing that your students wouldn’t guess about you?
That’s hard because I’m pretty open with my students! I guess there is something that I don’t really talk about, and that is that I used to have a very difficult time with public speaking, or speaking in front of groups. I think that’s a fairly common circumstance. It’s very common for undergraduates to not be comfortable talking to groups of people, and I can assure you that I was the same way. I would actively avoid opportunities to speak up. It was only after I left undergraduate school and was out in what I call the “real world” that I realized that it was just plain silly. I had to overcome my fear and realize that there’s incredible value in communication ability. So when my students see me today, they’d probably never guess that I used to be shy and didn’t like to speak in front of groups.
How did you end up overcoming that fear? Was there any specific occurrence that changed your mindset?
There was one particular incident that’s very vivid in my mind, and it was probably the definitive moment for me. I had graduated with my bachelor’s degree and gone to military duty, so I was a brand new second lieutenant. I was invited to sit in on a briefing, a presentation that this young captain was giving. There couldn’t have been more than thirty people in the room, which is a relatively small group for a briefing, and when the young man started on his presentation, he was doing fine. Everything was great until he got asked a question, and for some reason, he couldn’t answer it. The question was rephrased multiple times, and he just couldn’t answer. It wasn’t that he didn’t have something to say; it was just that he got nervous and when he answered, his response didn’t answer the question. What should have been a friendly, informative discussion turned into his superior questioning him, basically saying “I’m not sure if you know what you’re doing in your job”. I wanted to crawl under the chair, and it wasn’t even me giving the presentation! I thought “Oh my God, this is horrible”. I walked out of that meeting and I thought to myself, “I will never, ever be in that position.” That was the turning point where I thought, I’ve gone to college, I know how to learn, and I can do better than that. I can get over my fear of public speaking, and not end up looking like that guy.
That must have impacted your future career as a college professor.
Exactly! I had no idea of the impact that this lesson would have on my future career. I just knew that I was never going to let myself get into that situation. You learn things at times when you don’t think you’re learning, so everyone should always be open to learning something new. I certainly didn’t walk in that room expecting to learn some life lesson, I just thought I was wasting my time listening to a briefing, and I walked out a changed person. I’m always on the lookout for life lessons, and I find them all the time. And they can happen to somebody else; those are the best ones! See, I learned that life lesson and I didn’t have to go through all that. To me, those are the gravy lessons. I’m just as human as anybody else; I’d rather learn them the easy way, from other people! But I make my fair share of mistakes too, and I love to laugh at myself. But my students know that; I do it all the time.