November 2010

Research Spotlight: Tracy Johnson

In a special online-only article, Tracy Johnson, assistant professor at University of California, San Diego, talks about her research and interests and shares some of the challenges she faced in her scientific development.

Tracy JohnsonASBMB:
 Tell us about your current career position.
Johnson: I am an assistant professor at University of California, San Diego in the division of biological sciences (molecular biology section).  Since UCSD is a large research university, the bulk of my job involves running my research lab. We are interested in the mechanism by which noncoding intron sequences are removed from a newly synthesized messenger RNA, a reaction called pre-mRNA splicing. Since recent studies demonstrate that pre-messenger RNA splicing can occur co-transcriptionally, i.e. while the RNA polymerase is actively engaged with the DNA template, we are especially interested in understanding how RNA splicing is coordinated with transcription. Our most recent work reveals a surprising role for histone modification in co-transcriptional splicing and, more unexpectedly, a role for components of the splicing machinery in transcription.

ASBMB: What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
Johnson: As an undergraduate, I was torn between my love of science and literature. I was fortunate to have several science professors at UCSD, where I did my undergraduate work, who took notice of my scientific abilities and actively encouraged me to pursue a scientific career. In the summer of my sophomore year, I began working in the lab of Jim Kadonaga where we studied transcriptional regulation, and I absolutely fell in love with research. It was this experience that motivated my decision to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology. As a graduate student at UC Berkeley and a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, I had the opportunity to work for two extraordinary biochemists (Michael Chamberlin and John Abelson) who created environments in which I received outstanding training while having the freedom to explore my own ideas. Having excellent mentors throughout my scientific career has been critical to my scientific development and has emphasized to me the value of being a good mentor myself.

As a graduate student and postdoc I was also able to develop my interest in teaching and outreach. I helped design and implement programs that promoted excellence in science by increasing the participation of members of underrepresented groups in science and research—such as a Saturday Science Academy for high school students at Caltech. It was incredibly rewarding when, years later, one of these high school students worked as a teaching assistant in my upper division molecular biology class at UCSD! Teaching and outreach continue to be important to me, and I am engaged in activities to achieve the goal of broadened participation at both a local and national level.

ASBMB: How did you first become interested in science?
Johnson: I honestly believe that most children fall in love with science from a very early age. Like most children, I liked to understand how things worked. Unfortunately, I think that for many people, something happens (or doesn’t happen) in our educational system that chips away at this passion. I feel fortunate to have had parents who nurtured that natural curiosity and teachers who found ways of presenting science that captured the excitement of discovery.

ASBMB: 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?
Johnson: Absolutely. I imagine that if you don’t fail along the way, you probably aren’t stretching yourself enough…at least that is what I tell myself.

In any case, it is crucial not to let these temporary setbacks derail you. One particularly striking example of such a setback was when I submitted my first RO1 NIH grant. The proposal was skewered by the reviewers—to the point that I questioned whether I should pursue the project at all. On top of the enormous disappointment, I was anxious about how I would secure funding to support my growing lab. I had to learn not to take the reviews personally, but to extract the useful criticism from the reviewers and rework the project. I wrote several small grants to agencies that would fund parts of the proposal, and then, when I accumulated enough preliminary data for the project, I resubmitted the proposal—with much better results.

ASBMB: What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
Johnson: There are, inevitably, times when being “the only one” (or one of a few) can be very isolating. Being from an underrepresented background in the sciences, i.e. being a woman, a person with disabilities, an underrepresented minority, etc., can present unique challenges, but it can also bring enormous opportunities. If science is your passion, embrace the opportunities! For example, as a black, female scientist, I find that people are likely to remember if I’ve given a talk at a meeting. So it makes it easier to meet new colleagues and develop collaborations. There is also a large body of data that shows that scientists who come from non-traditional backgrounds bring a different perspective to their research. It is important to know how your unique background positively influences the way you think about your science or carry out your research and embrace it!

ASBMB: What are your hobbies?
Johnson: I love to cook (and eat). My favorite pastime is to throw dinner parties for my friends. I also love to do yoga—maybe to counteract the effects of my first pastime.

ASBMB: What was the last book you read?
Johnson: “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. It is fascinating to analyze the common characteristics of exceptional individuals and inspiring to see how embracing opportunity and working hard can lead to extraordinary success.

ASBMB: Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
Johnson: Yes, my parents. They have always been driven and persistent; nonetheless they never compromise their core values in exchange for “success.” They have tried to pass this on to me and my siblings. This approach has proven to be an important guiding principle that helps to keep things in perspective, even when challenges arise.

ASBMB: What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science everyday?
Johnson: Biology has a certain beauty and elegance that constantly reveals itself the harder you look. Each experiment offers the possibility of a new insight—if it is crafted and executed correctly. This process never ceases to excite and challenge me!

Visit Tracy Johnson's webpage at the University of California, San Diego.

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