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Michael David Leslie Johnson, Ph.D.

Michael.JohnsonTell us about your current career position.
I currently work as a postdoctoral fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the department of Infectious Diseases under the direction of Jason Rosch, Ph.D. My current project explores the effect of metal export in Streptococcus pneumoniae on virulence and overall survival. I hope to transition to a tenure track position in academia following my fellowship.

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
My experiences revolve around trust: trust God, in my friends and trust in myself.  I got here in one of the most roundabout ways possible, but the journey has truly shaped who I am as a person and as a scientist. I started as a senior music major at Duke University with no undergraduate research experience. I was pre-med/pre-vet, and thus took the associated classes, but neither option truly appealed to me. Before my last semester, I had a truly divine experience that persuaded me to pursue science as a career, and I am glad I listened.

Another key experience was getting to know Dr. Patricia Phelps who led me to become involved in the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC) during graduate school. It was through this program, along with the opportunity to mentor post-baccalaureates through the UNC PREP program, that I realized my love of mentoring and desire to do it as a PI in academia.

An additional experience was the friendships I developed in my graduate lab under the direction of Dr. Matthew Redinbo. As one can imagine after majoring in music as an undergrad, I had quite a bit of catching up to do—even after the great mentorship of  Dr. Jeffery Frelinger who decided to take a gamble and allow a music major to join his lab as a technician. I had a wonderfully supportive lab that questioned many of my scientific process, methods and data to truly make me a better scientist. It influenced me greatly and I am forever grateful to them for giving me such a positive lab experience.  Finally, the decision to follow my gut feeling and join a brand new lab as a postdoctoral fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was a key experience. I love my job, my boss, the work I do and feel I am being productive.

How did you first become interested in science?
The first time I really got interested in science was during a science fair project in elementary school. I wanted to test the quality of different tap and bottled waters for purity and hardness. I remember being told it wasn’t the best project to pursue. But I persevered because besides being told not to do it, I had heard about similar studies so I was convinced that I had an idea (late as I may have been) that other people thought was important.

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path?  If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
When I first took organic chemistry I got a “D”—the first “D” in my life. I felt inadequate, no matter how hard a course people said it was. I knew there was no way I could take organic chemistry 2 with such a poor grasp of the material. I regrouped and took both semesters during the summer. I don’t think I was ever as determined to “beat” a class as I was with organic chemistry. I ended up doing very well in both semesters. In fact, I tutored more than 30 people in organic chemistry at Duke University. I remembered the pitfalls and knew how to help people avoid them. It was an “if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere” moment for me.

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
It might sound cliché, but fortune favors the bold. Be bold with others and be bold within. Find someone who does what it is you want to do, and don’t be intimidated to ask why they are there and how they got there. Ask them to lunch or coffee. Don’t pursue something blindly. If you are not willing to put yourself out there in a position where you can fail, then you will never truly succeed. Don’t let the fear of something not working cripple you. Failure is not the end, it is the beginning.

Another piece of advice is “fake it until you make it.” Most of us have felt like an imposter before, but remember: your mindset, body language and actions have a large effect on who you are, what you will become and how people see you. If you don’t see yourself where you want to be, it will be difficult for others to do so. One day you will realize that you have indeed made it.

What are your hobbies?
When I’m not playing with my two daughters, I enjoy playing golf and video games. I also like composing music and singing. I find I get some of my best scientific ideas when I’m not doing science at the time. For example, I was with my first daughter instead when I came up with my thesis project.

What was the last book you read?
I’m a big fan of the children’s books Peak a Who? and The Monster at the End of this Book. Before I Fall Asleep by S. J. Watson was the last book I read for myself. It is about a woman who loses her memory every time she goes to sleep. It was a nice “suspend reality and enjoy something” kind of a book for me.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
There are several people and groups of people from whom I draw inspiration, comfort and strength. One person is Dr. Patricia Phelps. While at UNC, she was a leader in creating new opportunities in academia for all students. She was someone who broke down the barriers between graduate students and PIs, and a champion of the graduate process. She was one of the first people in graduate school to be in my corner and one of the first people to make me think about myself as having a name that carried scientific weight. In a sense, to brand myself and to build and believe in that brand. It gave me more confidence, and in turn, my skills followed. Another person is Dr. Francis Collins for his efforts in pointing out that faith and science do not have to be enemies. Finally, the young patients at St. Jude for showing strength daily through all that they endure. 

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
Loving what I do is the number one thing that keeps me motivated. Second, discovering something new, which is one of the best feelings a person can have. The last motivation is seeing the kids at St. Jude Hospital, who are daily reminders of what we do in the lab can and does make a difference.

Dr. Michael Johnson is a Postdoctoral fellow at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. He can be reached at michaeldl.johnson@stjude.org.