Standing atop the Himalayan Mountains, Alex Johnson was, quite literally, on top of the world.
By 28, he was on the path to his third degree — a Ph.D. in geology at UC Santa Barbara — had helped numerous undergraduate students spread their wings and had circled the planet in search of rocks, from the hot deserts of Oman to the snowy heights of the Himalayas.
With multiple teaching and mentorship awards to his name, the Prince George, Virginia native was well on his way to achieving his goals of becoming a geology professor, those who knew him closely said.
But after a month-long fight against a brain aneurysm, Alex passed away on July 21, 2020.
“Alex has left this world and now resides with each of us in memory and in love,” his sister-in-law Amanda Vtipilson wrote on a GoFundMe page to raise money for Alex during his time in the hospital.
John Cottle, a professor in the earth science department and Alex’s advisor, said his late student’s passing was felt deeply throughout the department. Many undergraduate students, who had grown close to Alex through his mentorship, felt helpless without him as a guiding light, he added.
“Alex is without a doubt the best graduate student I’ve had,” Cottle said, “and among the best graduate students the department has ever seen.”
The university awarded Alex a posthumous Ph.D. just 48 hours after his passing — a process that usually takes several months.
“Alex is one of those people that as soon as you engage with him, you realize that he’s a very smart guy and really understands what he wants to get out of something,” Cottle said.
One student close to Alex was Riley Rohrer, a current geology lab technician at UCSB who graduated in 2019 and first met Alex when he was a TA for her optical mineralogy class in Winter Quarter 2018. She credits him as the driving force behind her career in geology.
“He believed in me so much and gave me the confidence to not doubt myself, and not just in geology, but in life,” she said. “The kind of person I want to be is what I saw in him.”
Alex became Rohrer’s mentor when she began as his research assistant, and the two got along “seamlessly,” she said, quickly becoming best friends.
“He was so much more to me than a best friend,” Rohrer said. “He was my mentor, my advisor, the person I go to ask every single question possible.”
Alex also had a budding relationship with Rohrer’s dog, Pawl.
“He would think we shared this dog, [that was] how much he loved him,” Rohrer said, recounting the many playdates and sleepovers Alex had with Pawl. At one point, Alex even put on lipstick to mail Pawl a box covered in his own kisses, she said.
“It was so Alex to do something like that,” Rohrer said. “Kind of weird and quirky, but so, so sweet.”
Nowadays, she said, Pawl finds Alex’s sweaters and always finds a way to sleep with them.
When Valeria Jaramillo Hernandez, who graduated from UCSB in 2019 with a geology degree, first came to the university as a transfer student, she knew no one — until she met Alex during her first quarter in 2017. He was quick to take her under his wing.
“Coming in from a community college to a big university — it was scary and intimidating,” she said. “But Alex was just one of those people that makes you feel extremely comfortable.”
Jaramillo Hernandez said they grew especially close during her senior year, when Alex began helping her with her research projects. When it came to mentorship, she said, Alex was a well-attuned listener and would often put his skills to use by surprising his friends with little gifts to make their day.
Those fortunate enough to have been in Alex’s sphere of influence were able to see beyond his thrifted outfits and quintessentially large beard: When he was truly himself, Jaramillo Hernandez said, his kindness had no limit and his zest for life roamed free. Jaramillo remembers a particular video of Jonhson on a geology trip in Nepal that captures his spirit well.
“You see Alex walking down these steps to this group of men that are dancing and he just goes and joins them. That — that is Alex,” she added. “He’s just so unapologetically himself.”
Amy Moser, a fourth-year graduate student in the geology department and close friend of Alex’s, remembers Alex’s habits well. “He was generous almost to a fault,” she said.
“I had to start being careful with little problems that I mentioned I was having in my life because he was the kind of person who would immediately jump up and offer to help you solve said problem,” Moser added.
As the two grew closer as fellow graduate students and TAs, Moser said she was impressed by Alex’s intelligence, specifically when it came to research.
“If you had a question about anything that was broadly related to any of our research topics, he knew the exact paper and the authors and the journal and the title of the paper,” she said. “He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”
It’s a rare sight for a TA to put stickers on their students’ assignments, Moser said, but Alex was not like most TAs. He dished out gold stickers “for every single student’s assignment regardless of how well they did,” she said. But most importantly, Alex was always “more proud of his students than his own achievements.”
Moser said the geology department — professors, graduate students and undergraduate students alike — held a certain admiration for Alex, one that “left an impact on absolutely everyone” after his passing.
“The undergrads have lost a mentor: a huge, important mentor. The graduate students have lost a good friend and academic resource, and the faculty members have lost this person that they imagined going on to [do] great things,” she said. “His shoes have been absolutely impossible to fill.”
As she carries on in her Ph.D. program, Moser said she often misses Alex’s vibrant bursts of life, most loudly in the form of his unmistakable belly laugh.
“In our big seminar talks in the auditorium, if the speaker said something that was meant to elicit a chuckle, most people would give their chuckle,” Moser said. “Alex sits there and is literally slapping his knee and giving his full-bodied, iconic laugh.”
Moser said she would still look for his laugh in a room full of people.
“The first time I hear the whole room laugh, but don’t hear Alex’s laugh, I think that might be the moment where it finally hits me,” she said.
Francisco Apen, a third-year graduate student in the geology department and Alex’s former roommate, said he distinctly remembers Alex’s “infectious, booming laugh,” oftentimes the product of a well-delivered, self-deprecating joke.
“What kept us together was sort of a cynical sense of humor that we both had — both very self-deprecating, but also supportive of one another,” Apen said.
The two, who met in 2017 on a ferry to the Channel Islands for a geology trip, shared many interests, Apen said, including music, humor, research and mentoring, though “no one quite did it like Alex.”
Apen said he is determined to carry on Alex’s torch of undergraduate mentorship by inspiring students to chase their dreams.
“The biggest thing, academically, is mentoring undergrads. I really want to keep that aspect of Alex very much alive,” he said. “If I can even do a fraction of what he did, I think it’ll be enough.”
After watching her son fall in love with geology from the other end of the country, Micaela Johnson said Alex’s passing introduced her to a different side of him, one that neither she nor her family had ever seen before.
CeJae Vtipilson said his late brother was quieter and more subdued than him and his father; Micaela Johnson added that he was the kind of kid “that could get along by himself.”
What neither of them knew, however, was that Alex was slowly building a new world around himself at UCSB, filled with passion, friendship and zeal.
“My wife and I were worried that he was alone out in California by himself,” CeJae said. “But once my parents went out there, [it was like], ‘No way, he has a family of friends like none other.’”
In the months since his passing, Micaela said her son has continued to give back to the world. His heart was donated to a 16-year-old boy in need of a new one, she said; additionally, over 200 records from his vinyl collection were donated to KCSB radio, CeJae stated.
At a memorial for Alex’s passing on Sept. 11, Micaela said family and friends gathered to remember Alex, laying some of his ashes to rest in his hometown. Micaela said she and her family plan to travel around the world to return his remaining ashes to his past research locations.
As she carries on without her son, Micaela said she finds herself reflecting on his tender demeanor and head-first approach — virtues she hopes to appreciate more in her own life.
“I will strive to take more time with people because Alex was here to do that for a lot of people. Students would want to take extra time with him. And I think it just influences them so much. It helps them, but at the same time, I think it’s just who Alex was as a person,” Micaela said.
“He was the type of person that would sit down and listen to you and actually listened. I want to strive to be more like that. And I want to keep in touch with his friends and share their joys and their accomplishments in life,” she continued. “Because I know they were an important part of his life.”
Going forward, Micaela said she is working with the John Randolph Foundation and plans to use the proceeds from Alex’s GoFundMe to create a fund for parents who also may have to drop everything at a moment’s notice to visit their child when faced with health issues or hardship.
“I want to start a fund, even if it’s just $5,000. So other parents, if their kids went through this, would be able to fly out and be with their child as well,” she said. “I know how hard it would have been for us to not be able to do that.”
“So few parents would have that opportunity to just get up, walk away from their life for two months and be there for their child,” Micaela continued. “We just wish it didn’t turn out the way it turned out.”
Micaela said she is also looking to lay down the roots for a geology scholarship in memory of Alex, tentatively named the “the Orange Beanie award” — an ode to his thrift-shop headwear.
CeJae said there are still many moments when he wants to share something funny or interesting with his younger brother, but the constant reminder of his absence “really just sucks.”
“Typically you cry because you miss your grandparents,” he said. “But I’m crying because Alex doesn’t get to become the professor that he wanted to be and travel the world the way he wanted to.”
Micaela and CeJae concurred, however, that Alex’s passing has brought their family closer together than ever before. They call and text frequently, and plan to see each other more in person once social distancing restrictions ease up, Micaela said.
“Now I understand the importance of family even more than I ever had,” she added. “Reality kind of smacks you in the face.”
But even after his passing, Micaela said her son’s legacy continues to shine brighter than ever. When she looks back at Alex’s accomplishments — a rolodex of degrees, fellowships and awards — she remains in awe.
“Geology really opens up a world to people that I had never imagined,” Micaela said.
“I never thought that Alex would go to the Himalayas. Never in a million years would that cross my mind … it was just something he wanted to do,” she said. “And geology let him do that.”