From a young age, she loved science and kept asking how things worked eventually learning in college that she wanted to know how things work at an atomic level.
“I kept asking why and I felt that chemistry would give the best opportunity to find those answers.”
After finishing high school, she attended the University of the Incarnate Word and studied chemistry. She then took a break between undergrad and graduate school, to work at Texas Biomedical Research Institute as a research assistant in the lab of Dr. Robert Lanford.
“I’ve always been interested in relating my knowledge of chemistry to biological systems but I didn’t have a lot of biology experience as a chemistry student. I realized at Texas Biomed how much I loved research but that I also wanted the freedom to eventually answer questions driven by my own curiosities.”
Johnson was apprehensive to apply to graduate school because she didn’t have any role models who had science careers.
“I never saw a scientist that looked like me. All the scientists I knew were old white men. I knew that some day I would be old but I would never be a white man. Meeting UT Health San Antonio students at Texas Biomed, especially students who came from cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds that I could relate to, really inspired me to apply,” she said.
In order to help raise awareness that scientists come from all backgrounds, Johnson joined the local Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapter at UT Health San Antonio where she now serves as secretary. She is also a member of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program and she routinely participates in science outreach through her involvement with these groups.
“I really like participating in outreach events because I didn’t see scientists growing up so I want to provide that to other students. Also, having that community in the IMSD of people who know what it’s like to be a first gen student, is really valuable to me.”
Currently, she is in the lab of Dr. David Libich, and she is working on a research project focused on Ewing Sarcoma. According to the National Cancer Institute, Ewing sarcoma is a type of tumor that forms in bone or soft tissue most common in adolescents and young adults (teens through mid-20s).
“I consider myself a basic scientist. I’m interested in how things work at a fundamental level. I want to find out why a protein works the way it does and how this can contribute to human health and disease,” she said.
Her research looks at a fusion protein that drives the disease and she is interested in characterizing the protein with the use biophysical methods.
“In our lab we are interested in intrinsically disordered proteins involved in pediatric cancers. We aim to understand how these proteins interact with nucleic acids and other proteins and how these interactions contribute to disease.” she said. “While intrinsically disordered proteins have been studied for over a decade now it is still difficult for some people to accept that a protein can have a function without a defined 3D structure. Learning how to change peoples’ minds through my research is an exciting challenge.”
Johnson recently passed her qualifying exam which is a huge achievement for graduate students. Since finishing her qualifying exam, Johnson is now concentrating on finishing her dissertation proposal and she is working on completing an F31.
“I received the Greehey Graduate Student Fellowship which fully funded me for my second year of graduate school and it was a great feeling to be independently funded. I also want to stay in academic science so it’s important for me to find funding early and often.”
Some other highlights of her time in graduate school so far has been presenting a poster at the Experimental Biology conference though funding she received from the IMSD program. In addition, she contributed to two publications during her rotation with Dr. Borries Demeler.
Outside of school, Johnson loves to knit and play the piano.
This article was written by Charlotte Anthony, marketing specialist at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UT Health San Antonio. This article is part of the “Meet The Researcher” series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.