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June 2020 Young Alumni of the Month

Katherine Johnson

By: Tayler Reynolds

Katherine Johnson
Mendota Heights, Minnesota
Job title and company: Research Technologist at Mayo Clinic

Katherine Johnson (’17 agricultural biochemistry), research technologist at Mayo Clinic, offers an update on her current research, how her position has been affected by the global pandemic and offers advice for undergrads.

Johnson’s passion for biochemistry lead her to form meaningful relationships with her undergraduate adviser Distinguished Professor of Agriculture Donald Beitz and other professors

“Ms. Johnson seemed to really enjoy the research environment – I can remember several career planning sessions that culminated in her earning a research technologist position at the Mayo Clinic,” says Beitz.

Johnson says she truly enjoyed her time in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and currently enjoys spending a significant amount of time in the lab conducting cancer research.

Favorite ISU Class and/or professor: 

“My favorite class at Iowa State University was the Biochemistry of Beer taught by Scott Nelson. Scott is a great professor who is really passionate about science, and he brews his own beer. When I found out he was starting a new class about the biochemistry of beer I had to sign up! As a scientist, I love learning about the science of everyday things, so this was definitely my favorite class. We learned about the biochemistry of each step of brewing beer and it was fun to apply the knowledge I learned in other biochemistry classes!

Not only did I enjoy Scott’s classes, but I also worked in his lab as an undergraduate and completed my master’s degree in his lab. I really enjoyed the research and he was a great mentor throughout my time there. He also gave really good advice and support when I was looking for jobs after graduation. I have two favorite professors, Dr. Nelson, and Dr. Donald Beitz.

Don was my undergraduate adviser and he was another great mentor throughout my entire time at Iowa State University. I struggled with some classes in my freshman year, but when I met with him each semester to discuss what classes to register for, he was always really encouraging and supportive. He can see the potential in his students and keeps positive energy, which was really motivating for me to keep going and not give up my dream of doing cancer research. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentorship of both Dr. Nelson and Dr. Beitz!”

What do you like the most about your current job? 

 “It is hard to pick just one thing I like the most because I am super passionate about cancer research and love being in a hands-on job, especially at Mayo Clinic! I think the most exciting part about the lab I work in is we all have different degrees in various aspects of science (cell biology, pathology, biochemistry, etc.). It is exciting to see everyone contributing their ideas during lab meetings and I enjoy being able to apply my biochemistry knowledge into my current projects, making suggestions on experiments, and problem-solving.”

As a research technologist, how has your position been affected by COVID-19? Did your research change? 

 “When Minnesota first did the stay-at-home order, we had to work from home for several weeks. As a scientist, this is very difficult so we mainly focused on data analysis and working on the written portions of some of the papers and grants we will be submitting soon. Some of the labs at Mayo Clinic have started doing COVID19 research, however, my lab has continued to work on pancreatic cancer and liver disease research.

After returning to the lab, our research projects have been the same, but the work environment has changed drastically. Some new things we have been doing are working flexible hours to reduce the number of people in the lab, holding virtual meetings, spreading out office space, disinfecting shared equipment, wearing masks at all times, checking our temperatures daily, and working from home when possible (writing and data analysis).”

What advice do you have for current undergraduate biochemistry students?

“Get involved in clubs, events, or classes in both your major and something that is just for fun. Biochemistry is a really tough major, so I highly recommend making time to find a hobby, join a club, or take a fun class not related to your major. I love science and enjoyed taking extra science electives to explore different topics like cell biology and human diseases to help figure out my career path. But I also took some fun classes like golf, the biochemistry of beer and sociology. Those classes were really enjoyable, and it was nice to have a break in my day to learn about something completely different.

If you aren’t able to take elective classes then I recommend getting involved in a club or intramural sport, even if you have never tried it before. I joined the rowing team freshman year with zero experience, and I loved it! Joining clubs or sports is a great way to make friends and meet people outside of your major.

Another piece of advice is to take advantage of as many events, symposiums, or workshops that the university provides for academic and career development. Attending conferences or local symposiums is a great way to learn about new research and science topics that will help you learn about what you are interested in when you graduate. Many conferences have been canceled due to COVID, but a lot of them have switched to virtual seminars so you can watch them at home, and they are free to attend!

My last piece of advice is to find what you love to do in the science world. If you aren’t sure what you want to do after graduating, talk to the professors in the Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology to get advice or see if any of them are hiring undergraduates to do research in their lab. They are all great professors who really care about helping students succeed and helping them find what they are interested in!

Find your passions in life, meet new people, and enjoy your time in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences!”