Arts + Sciences

Alumni Corner

A Life, A Career Built on A Foundation of Theory and Practice: Meet Dr. Dan Johnson

Dr. Daniel W. Johnson ‘76
Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Physics

He answered the first question without hesitation. Why LTU? Relationships. Experiences. That’s why Dr. Daniel W. Johnson chose Lawrence Tech to complete his Bachelor of Science degrees in 1976, one in physics and one in mathematics and computer science.

During his time at Southfield Lathrup High School, Johnson attended LTU's Summer Science Institute where he was "exposed to some excellent instructors." He also received undergraduate credits while in high school, which meant that he could complete two degrees in three years!

“I felt at home in that environment,” said Johnson. “Jerry Crist convinced me to go to LTU because he knew me from the time I was in high school taking those undergraduate courses. He said I’d attain more success in life if I attended there. Dr. Crist had a large influence on my life. He was my motivation for going to LTU instead of going out of state. Once I started full-time at LTU, he made me feel important and at ease in the LTU environment and was always available to provide advice and guidance throughout my undergraduate education.” Crist headed LTU’s chemistry department and taught Johnson while he was in high school. 

In 2010, Johnson anonymously started the Dr. Jerry Crist Scholarship in his honor. “I heard the same sentiments I felt about Dr. Crist when I went to the special 2014 event to celebrate his (Crist’s) life and to dedicate the new chemistry laboratory named for him. He made a difference in the lives of so many students.” Johnson continues to donate to LTU through the Dr. Jerry Crist Scholarship and “I’m just happy about how well it’s doing and that I can give back.”


Dr. Jerry Crist (left) with Dr. Daniel W. Johnson ’76 at the 2014 celebration of Dr. Crist’s life and contributions to LTU and the naming of a chemistry laboratory in his honor.

Giving back is important to Johnson. “When people take an interest in your wellbeing, it changes lives,” said Johnson. “The most influential other than Dr. Crist was Dean Zaven Margosian, Dean of the School of Arts and Science. He provided three key ingredients for my education and career. First, he helped plan my curriculum to finish two degrees in three years. Second, he specifically helped select classes to essentially train me for a job across the street from LTU at the Bendix Research Laboratories. In fact, after graduation from LTU in 1976, I accepted a job at Bendix in the same group where Zaven worked prior to his position at LTU. His targeted training enabled me to feel extremely comfortable and make valuable contributions from Day 1 at Bendix. Third, upon graduation Zaven advised me to start a PhD program part-time at The University of Michigan. More than that, he suggested I try to work under the renowned Professor Elmer G. Gilbert of the Aerospace Engineering Department. Only a few years later, I found myself in Professor Gilbert’s office asking to study under his direction, the beginning of the most rewarding and productive collaboration of my lifetime. Although it led to many achievements, the most popularized is the GJK (Gilbert-Johnson-Keerthi) algorithm, which simply finds the distance between convex sets and an essential computation in video games.”

Bendix moved its Advanced Technology Center to Maryland, but Johnson stayed in Michigan. The company funded his salary and his PhD in Aerospace Engineering (Control Systems), which he received from The University of Michigan, where Johnson had also earned his MS in Computer, Information & Control Engineering in 1983. Along with his PhD in 1987, he was invited by Martin Marietta to come to design a control system for a very large robotics arm. “My new job was very exciting,” Johnson said. “At that time, Martin Marietta had one of the best robotics labs in the country.” Johnson, his wife Gail, a librarian, and his four-year old daughter, made Baltimore their home. He also has a son and is the proud grandfather of three. 

“I can’t say enough about all the outstanding [professors] at LTU… Without them, I would be in a different place today.”

– Dr. Daniel W. Johnson ‘76

Johnson has been with Northrup Grumman since 1998 as Consulting Engineer, Strategy & Senior Leadership. He received the 2022 New Technology Award for the development of spherical near-field to far-field transformations. His resume says that he “Conducted routine training and mentoring of technical staff in the theory and practice of designing, mathematically modeling and optimizing large, irregular, conformal and/or sparse arrays for beam-forming objectives.” There are a couple of words LTU alumni, faculty, and students might recognize in that statement even if you didn't understand the rest. To this day, Johnson lives the LTU motto: Theory and Practice.

Author or coauthor of more than 15 publications, Johnson has 46 years of experience in the research and development of real-time control and signal processing systems for complex sensors, machines, vehicles, manipulators, aircraft, and spacecraft. His areas of expertise include Optimization Theory, Control Theory, Estimation Theory, Applied Mathematics, Numerical Analysis, Differential Geometry, Dynamics/Astrodynamics and Structures, Robotics, Target Tracking, and Target Classification.

Johnson can’t say enough about all the other outstanding scientists and engineers and mathematicians who taught at LTU and shaped his goals and objectives in the 1970s. “Without them, I would be in a different place today,” he reflected. 

 “People claim that I am just always in the right place at the right time,” Johnson said. “The truth is it’s not by chance, but by design and plan, sometimes down to the finest detail. I always had goals written plainly on paper and a roadmap in my mind to achieve them so that all I had to do was execute. My advice to young engineers is to write their most important desires and aspirations and to routinely review this list to ensure they are on the path to achieving them.”

by Renée Ahee