Kelli Johnson ’13, came to UNC from Washington state. Now, she’s a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

At about six or seven years old, I’d decided that I wanted to be a doctor because of course when you’re six or seven years old, you don’t know the word ‘scientist’ or ‘researcher.’ I told everyone I was going to cure diseases.

I did get my associate’s degree in arts and sciences (through a high school program in Washington state called Running Start), and that is one of the major things that led me to accepting at UNC. UNC really caught my attention because I knew I would be going in as a junior, essentially, and so I needed to be able to get into a lab. UNC was very supportive of that.

My UNC interview was with Dr. (Pat) Burns, who was amazing throughout the entire process. We talked about potential labs to get me into, and he’s like, ‘You know what? Come see my lab.’ Essentially our 15-minute interview became a two-and-a-half hour ‘Let me introduce you to everyone and tell you everything.’ As we were leaving, my mom looks at me and says, ‘So should I be telling your dad that you’re going to come to Colorado?’

I got to take the cancer biology class at UNC, along with medical genetics, mammalian endocrinology, and all of the upper level biology classes, and they’ve really made a difference with my research experience and with my life here at Hopkins. Being able to take those classes gave me a significant head start when I got here.

One of my favorite classes was methods in molecular biology. In the lab we practiced isolating DNA, we practiced doing the western blots. That’s where I learned sterile culture technique. You’re not often taught those things in a normal undergraduate class because they’re too expensive or you need too much experience to do it.

I was in Dr. (Judy) Leatherman’s labstudying the PDGF VEGF receptors in Drosophila (fruit flies) as a cancer model. I joined her lab, got trained on how to handle the Drosophila, all of the balancer chromosomes, how to dissect using the dissecting scope and things like that. And then she kind of just let me loose.

She took me and her senior post-doc at the time to the Genetics Society of America meeting, and I had my first opportunity to present my research in a public forum, and I got to attend all of the seminars and everything as an undergraduate. I think that experience had a big impact on my acceptance here at Hopkins — that I’d gone and I’d presented data, and I had data that was essentially in review at the time.

I’m in the lab of Dr. Mark Donowitz, who is a gastrointestinal clinician and research scientist here at Hopkins, and we study intestinal epithelial enteroids as a model to study intestinal disease and physiology.

My future goals are heavily influenced by my experience at UNC. Because I had such amazing teachers who were also researchers and who were able and willing to support me not only in the classroom but also in the lab, that’s what I want to do.

–Kelli Johnson as told to Rebecca Dell