Interview with Jane Johnson, who studies nervous system development at UT Southwestern
After graduating from University of Washington, with a degree in Chemistry, Jane Johnson continued her studies with a PhD in Biochemistry at the same University. She then moved south, from Seattle to Pasadena, to embrace a postdoctoral position at the California Institute of Technology studying neural development. It was there where she discovered Ascl1, an essential transcription factor in nervous system development that plays a key role in the research of her laboratory. Johnson joined UT Southwestern in 1992, where she is currently a Professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Neuroscience, Professor in the Department of Pharmacology, and holds the Shirley and William S. McIntyre Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience.
SPEaC: Coming from a chemistry background, what led you to study development? And then, why focus on neural development?
Jane Johnson: I actually went from nursing to chemistry to biochemistry. I always tended towards the biology side of chemistry. In graduate school I joined Steve Hauschka’s laboratory working on transcriptional control of muscle specific genes. It was there that I found my passion is directed towards understanding developmental processes. When I was looking for a postdoctoral position, a “master regulator” of muscle development was just discovered, MyoD, I decided I wanted to find a “master regulator” for neuronal development. I joined David Anderson’s laboratory with this goal in mind. It turns out I identified a neural-specific factor related to MyoD that does have properties consistent with a role as a master regulator of neural lineages.
Image: Development of the spinal cord. During development, an invagination of the neural plate closes to form the neural tube, which will become the central nervous system. The most caudal parts of the neural tube will become the spinal cord. In ‘Making sense out of spinal cord somatosensory development’, , ,
S: What events marked your scientific career? What lessons can you share from those events?
JJ: My path to a scientific career was not direct. First I had to get from the medical field to science. In my first year in nursing school, I found I was much more interested in the organic chemistry classes I was taking as electives than I was in the nursing courses. With encouragement from my organic chemistry professor, I switched majors to chemistry. The advanced coursework in biochemistry opened my eyes to this area, and rather than entering the work force, I somewhat blindly entered graduate school in biochemistry.
Lesson 1: follow your passion.
Second, I had a very supportive graduate school mentor who not only fostered in me a passion for research but also supported the reality of a healthy work/personal life balance. With his support, I actually completed the last two years of my graduate research as a ‘special student’ at Caltech, moving there with my significant other (now husband), Tom Wilkie, who was starting his postdoctoral position. This turned out to be a positive move in my graduate career because I learned different techniques in each lab.
Lesson 2: find a good mentor.
Third, I landed a postdoctoral position at Caltech and had the opportunity to work with many talented scientists from the students to the faculty. I was encouraged to take scientific risks, and be persistent in my pursuits.
Lesson 3: make the most out of each opportunity.
S: What led you to UT Southwestern and what do you like most of being here?
JJ: My husband is a scientist too so when we were looking for our first faculty position it was important to apply to many jobs (>40), and at places with a large enough research effort to hire the two of us. Tom worked on G-proteins so applying to Al Gilman’s Pharmacology Department at UT Southwestern was a must. We both interviewed on the same day, and were very impressed with the research going on at the institution—both in cell-signaling for Tom, but also in neuroscience for me. It was a good match.
We have never regretted our decision to come here. It was an extremely supportive research environment for young faculty, there were plenty of opportunities for collaborations, and the research effort has continued to increase over the past 24 years. It was also an easy place to raise a family—which we did.
S: Jane you have been involved in many Science Communication and Outreach activities. Do you want to give us a glimpse of your experiences in this area?
JJ: My outreach activities have evolved over the past couple of decades. When our children were in elementary school in the Dallas ISD, I did the standard volunteer work in science fairs, and I hosted high school teachers and students (STARS), and undergraduate students (SURF) in my laboratory for research opportunities. Maybe less typical was the show-and-tell events at DISD elementary schools with our corn snakes. Alice Brown (Mike Brown’s wife) orchestrated these visits through her efforts to enrich science education in underserved schools in the district. This was a big hit for the kids, not so much for the teachers.Photo: Image of a Corn Snake
More recently, Tom and I participated in an education program to teach biology to Tibetan monks. We got involved in this program through a Professor at Emory University who we went to graduate school with. The Emory Tibet Science Initiative is part of a partnership seeking a two-way exchange of people and ideas. We taught in the annual summer biology intensive course that is taught at three major Tibetan monastic universities in exile: Gaden, Sera, and Drepung, all located in southern India. This was an amazing cultural experience for us, and a challenge as we attempted to expose the monks to fundamentals of biology and the scientific process.
Photo: Biology Summer Course for Tibetan monks in India. Jane can be found in the center.
S: What challenges do scientists face at the moment? Do you think it is harder for female scientists?
JJ: The biggest challenge is funding. It has always been a struggle, but it is more of a struggle now. Without consistent funding, fewer risks are taken and major leaps in knowledge are replaced by incremental progress. The challenge for funding is also limiting faculty job opportunities and we are losing many bright minds to other fields. While there remain additional challenges for female scientists not faced by their male colleagues, funding challenges are universal.
From my personal experience (as a woman), having a spouse who is a partner in raising a family, and who has shared values in work and life, is critical. Of course persistence, competence, and luck also play key roles.