Heather Brient-Johnson: Inver Hills 2020 Instructor of the Year

Biology instructor recognized with annual award

Heather Brient-Johnson, 57, has been named Inver Hills Community College 2020 Instructor of the Year. Heather is a biology instructor with nearly 23 years of experience teaching at the college. She started at Inver Hills in August 1997.

Heather Brient-Johnson

Heather is proud to represent Inver Hills and the field of biology. She works to inspire her students by giving them a strong foundation while helping them better understand difficult concepts.

“Hold on to your sense of adventure,” she said, “and let it carry you to places that make you a better person.”

Heather earned a Master of Science (M.S.) in Biology from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1993. She has a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Zoology/Animal Behavior from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. She also has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater from Ohio University. Before coming to Inver Hills, Heather taught biology at Hibbing Community College.

Heather’s professional work in the biology field includes service as a naturalist and DNR field technician in Erskine, Minnesota. In the latter role, she surveyed small mammal populations in western Minnesota, preparing small mammal specimens, mapping field locations and entering field data into computer files.

She has taught a wide range of biology-based courses at Inver Hills, including:

  • General Biology I and II (majors)
  • Exploring Biology (non-majors)
  • Forensic Science
  • Anatomy and Physiology I and II
  • Critical Issues in Human Biology
  • Environmental Science

The Inver Hills Instructor of the Year selection process

Each year, Alpha Omicron Beta, the Phi Theta Kappa chapter at Inver Hills, organizes a student vote to choose a faculty member for the honor. PTK relays the voting link to students via the Student Bulletin and word-of-mouth, and by asking faculty members to share the link as well.

For more than 100 years, the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society has helped millions of high-achieving two-year college students reach their full potential. PTK members at Inver Hills compete at local and national levels, and many are eligible for scholarships at their transfer schools. Students must meet GPA requirements to join PTK.

Teaching philosophy

“Success is highly influenced by how much a student is engaged in the learning process. Create a learning environment in which students are highly engaged, and they will discover their own motivation and drive their own success.”
Heather Brient-Johnson
Biology Faculty
Inver Hills Community College

More about Heather…

Heather practicing herding with her Australian shepherd

Originally from Athens, Ohio, in the heart of Wayne National Forest, Heather has been married 27 years and her husband, Kent, works as a microbiologist. Heather and Kent have one daughter, Bai Li, 16. The family has three Australian shepherds, Cypher, Kyia and Rogan, two barn cats named Ashley and Smokey, and eight hair sheep—five Katahdins and three Dorpers.

“Since they are hair sheep, their wool cannot be collected and instead they shed it each season,” Heather said. “However, the sheep make great training tools for herding competition!”

When she’s not teaching biology, Heather enjoys running her sheep farm. She raises and trains Australian shepherds to work stock. During the spring and summer, she competes in working trials for herding cattle, sheep and ducks. Outside the trial arena, she trains her dogs in obedience, rally and agility.

She also enjoys gardening as well as canoeing, camping and hiking with her family along the North Shore during the summer months. Heather and her family reside on a hobby farm near Zumbrota, Minnesota.

Heather’s Australian shepherds

Other awards and accomplishments…

Heather at Annual Research Conference 2018
  • Awards for Excellence (2006 and 2008)
  • Golden Apple Award (2013 and 2014)
  • Began Phage Hunters
    • Joint project with the University of Minnesota Bacteriophage Institute (2013–present)
  • Supervised Undergraduate Research Projects
    • For presentation at Inver Hills Annual Research Conference

Heather Brient-Johnson gallery

Heather Brient-Johnson  Q & A

What is one thing every biology major should know?
Biology can take you places you may never have imagined. A strong foundation in biology can open up many career pathways and opportunities. It will challenge you, push you down roads you never thought to explore, and in the end enable you to be a better decision-maker in all areas of life.

What are the most important attributes of a biologist?
Biologists have the ability to make connections between living systems, pay attention to details, express several “adventure” genes, advocate for the environment, are good decision-makers, and lifelong learners.

What do you like best about teaching biology courses?
First, I am in love with all topics “biology.” I see it in everything I do in life. Sharing this love by teaching others about biology is a thrill. Especially when students “come alive” with you in the classroom. When energy is high, there are just endless places it can take us beyond the classroom.  It is infectious!

Three words that describe you as a biologist:
INQUISITIVE. PERSISTENT. ADVENTUROUS.

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching at the college level?
We interact with our students for a very limited amount of time. How do you help students understand difficult topics with limited time? How do you convince students to spend more time with tough topics?

Students have life distractions outside of a classroom and may struggle with biology content that requires time to digest. They are not always going to be good at everything; the challenge is to help them figure out what they are good at and nurture it so it stays with them for a long time.

What advice would you give students thinking of making biology their career path?
Start out by building a foundation. Work through the details; embrace the challenging ones. Explore experiences in biology that get you excited about life.

Seek out opportunities that allow you to make as many connections as you can with others that share your interests—students, teachers and educators, and industry professionals—and build bridges. By sharing the adventure with others, you will be able to move down the road with more confidence.

What is your favorite branch of biology, e.g., botany, zoology, evolution, ecology?
My interests in biology have varied over the years of teaching. There is so much to explore. However, my roots can be found buried in zoology. Coming from a background of raising animals of all sorts, it was my first love. It is what got me started in biology and that feeling has never left.

Three words that describe you as a college educator:
CREATIVE. EMPATHETIC. INSIGHTFUL.

How would you describe your teaching style?
My classroom can be described as interactive. I am a strong believer in engaging students with “activity” interspersed with explanations. Students need to work with the content in order to have a more solid understanding.

In this past semester (spring ‘20), this proved to be quite a challenge as we moved online. It forced me to “flip” my classroom in a way that I would probably never have tried otherwise. Although the work to build this kind of a classroom has been challenging, I have taken away from it many new insights and seen many successes.

What is your highest goal as a biologist?
Nurture students to a higher level of understanding of biology through research and building a strong foundation. The reward is, of course, to watch students pick up that foundation and fly!

One word that best describes your experience teaching at Inver Hills:

Adventure!

Biology Transfer Pathway A.S. at Inver Hills

The Biology Transfer Pathway Associate of Science (A.S.) offers you a powerful option: the opportunity to complete an associate of science degree with course credits that directly transfer to designated biology bachelor’s degree programs at Minnesota State universities.

“The Biology Transfer Pathway A.S. helps students transfer more seamlessly to a Minnesota State College,” said Heather Brient-Johnson, biology faculty. “This degree pathway has opened up new opportunities for students to imagine and explore the many exciting biology-related fields in their own backyard. The pathway is easy and saves time and money—a big win for our biology students!”

The curriculum has been specifically designed so that you can complete this pathway degree and transfer with junior-year status to one of the seven Minnesota State universities. All courses in the Transfer Pathway associate degree will directly transfer and apply to the designated bachelor’s degree programs in a related field.

Heather Brient-Johnson 12 Answers

  1. Favorite sport or physical activity: Stock dog herding
  2. Place you would most like to visit: Hawaii (incredible native island life to explore)
  3. The most exciting thing you’ve ever done: Trip to China to pick up my daughter (adoption)
  4. Three things you would do if you won a $1 billion lottery: 1) Travel 2) Build a better (greener) farm to share with others 3) Give the rest away
  5. Favorite TV show you’re watching now: Waiting for season two of A Discovery of Witches
  6. Best movie you’ve seen lately: The Aeronauts
  7. One thing you most want to accomplish in life: There are many. I want to be around to watch my daughter grow up!
  8. Your national bird if you were your own country: Crow (they are great survivors)
  9. Dream occupation: Paleontologist (in another life)
  10. Person you would most like to meet: Alfred Wallace
  11. Skill you would most like to learn and master: Master gardening
  12. Most important issue or problem facing humankind: Lack of empathy
Learn more about Biology at Inver Hills by contacting:

Kristin Digiulio
Biology Department Coordinator/Chair
651-450-3272

Heather Brient-Johnson
Biology Faculty
651-450-3606

Heather at Annual Research Conference 2016

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