2023 Crabaugh Award Winner: Ben Johnson

The rigor and seriousness displayed by the fisheries and wildlife science faculty at Arkansas Tech University energized Ben Johnson from the first time he stepped into McEver Hall as an ATU student.

“They mean business,” said Johnson. “The people that work in that department are some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. They are very passionate about their jobs and bringing up the next generation of conservation-minded people who are going to work in this field and further it. That was a huge factor for me.

“There are other colleges in the state that do similar things, but something just clicked at Arkansas Tech,” continued Johnson. “From the moment I saw all the things that were going on there, I knew this was the place to be for sure.”

Johnson is the 2023 recipient of the Alfred J. Crabaugh Award as the most outstanding senior male student at Arkansas Tech. He will be recognized during ATU spring commencement at Tucker Coliseum in Russellville on Saturday, May 6.

A graduate of Valley Springs High School, Johnson grew up minutes from the Buffalo National River and many of its tributaries. The water called to him from an early age.

“I was that nerdy fish kid who would have goggles on and a snorkel,” said Johnson. “While everyone else was swimming and jumping off bluffs, I was down at the bottom of the bluff finding all the neat critters that existed down there. Really, I was just curious, what are those?”

Johnson began to answer that question when he attended an educational event hosted by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He was hooked.

“There’s a whole field of fish research that is mostly species nobody has heard about, including me,” said Johnson. “I didn’t realize that was a thing. I thought it was just those big-game species we always catch in waterways that everyone eats. There’s a whole lot of other stuff that is vital to understanding the ecosystems we live in and we use. Without those non-game, lesser-known fish, none of the other ones would exist. You have to manage everything, not just what is popular. I wanted to know about the stuff nobody else knew about.”

When he began considering his options for post-secondary education, Johnson was impressed by the fact that ATU offered the only accredited fisheries and wildlife science program in Arkansas.

He soon found that other students with similar interests were drawn to the program as well.

“For the first time in my life, I met people who were as passionate as I was,” said Johnson. “I can’t speak highly enough of that. That’s so important, no matter what you are doing…having people around you…friends and peers who turn into colleagues…who are just as interested as you are and want to solve the same problems you do. They’ve positively impacted me every step of the way…studying together, finding common ground and having disagreements. It builds character and makes you a good independent thinker.”

Johnson’s undergraduate research has provided him opportunities to study a variety of creeks and streams as well as the species that inhabit them. He has presented the results of that research to the Southeastern Fishes Council in Athens, Ga., and the southern division of the American Fisheries Society in Norfolk, Va.

Dr. Kyler Hecke, ATU assistant professor of biology, has played a significant role in helping Johnson find his way in the world of research.

“He’s just been a phenomenal resource and wealth of knowledge,” said Johnson when asked about Hecke. “He’s helped me through a lot of uncertainty. When I get down and don’t know what to do, he’s always there to bring it around and advise me in a way that’s based in professionalism and knowing his way around in this field.”

Johnson said his development was also positively influenced by the opportunity to be exposed to and learn about the variety of people and perspectives on the ATU campus.

“Getting to experience different cultures, especially when you may not have been exposed to a lot of them, is very important,” said Johnson. “It’s what brings everything together. Our differences make us more relatable to each other. Getting to hear those voices of my peers and people I’ve never met has been one of my favorite experiences at Tech all around.”

Johnson is graduating from Arkansas Tech with a Bachelor of Science degree in fisheries and wildlife science with a concentration in fisheries science.

“Attending Arkansas Tech had a profound impact on my development, not only as a student, but as an early-career fisheries science professional and as an individual,” said Johnson. “The connections and lifelong friendships that I have formed over the past four years have been crucial to my development…from fellow undergraduates that have become some of my best friends and colleagues, to professors turned mentors and encouragers, to outstanding support from staff and administrators. They have all made my journey as a first-generation college student better than I could have hoped for at any institution.”

Johnson is pursuing internships and job opportunities in fisheries science. Once he gains some experience, he would like to return to school and earn his master’s degree.

No matter where he goes, Johnson will be most at home when he’s knee-deep in a body of water seeking answers to the questions that fuel his passion.

“Excitement and curiosity are where it starts,” said Johnson. “It always brings me back to those first couple of times I saw (unfamiliar species) in streams and creeks. I really like educating people about it and bringing recognition. We don’t have a whole lot of people who know about this stuff. My goal is to get these species out in the open so that people who are paying to manage these resources understand that these less charismatic species are important to the ecosystem. I get really excited about that prospect, and hopefully in my future endeavors I can play a big part in that. Regardless of what happens or where I end up, I’m going to rely on that trait that has gotten me through a lot of hardship at college and outside college, and that’s always being willing to learn something.”

Ben Johnson and Dr. Robin E. Bowen, Arkansas Tech University president