EU Alumni Perspective: Nathan Johnson
Name: Nathan T. Johnson
Graduation Year: 2008
Current Position: Associate Research Scientist in Bioinformatics and Data Science at Harvard Medical School & Dana Farber Cancer Institute
City and State: Worcester, MA
Tell us about your career and what you do now.
Life is full of surprises. I started my career after Evangel as a microbiologist testing food products such as Hershey’s chocolate, Milk from Dairy Farmers of America, and Tostitos’ salsa for pathogens such as E. coli. I knew thanks to my time at Evangel that I wanted to pursue a career in research. This caused me to enter into a Ph.D. program at the University of Missouri in Genetics where my original goal was making animal models for human disease. Scientists need a way to test ideas on what cures are possible, so they use different types of animals that mimic a disease similar to how it presents itself in human such as Breast Cancer. This allows a way to figure out which ideas have a possibility of working. When I was in the final stages of that degree, I entered into a research project with bioinformatics. This combines computers with biology. I finally realized my true passion and completely rearranged my degree. Eventually, this caused me ending up on the east coast in Massachusetts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where I finally finished my Ph.D. in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology.
So what can I do with this degree? By combining biology, computers, statistics and Artificial Intelligence (Machine Learning), I can find meaningful patterns within biological data. With my diverse background, this allows me the ability to work with experimental scientists and clinicians as a non-tenured faculty at Harvard Medical School (http://hits.harvard.edu/) and Dana Farber Cancer Institute (https://breasttumorimmunologylab.dana-farber.org/). I have the pleasure of working with the Breast Tumor Immunology lab to identify patterns relevant to translational research into how the immune system affects breast cancer, how to improve novel immune-based therapies, and utilizing information from the clinic for insight into breast cancer research.
What is your favorite memory from Evangel?
While at Evangel, I had many great memories including meeting my wife, as well as the support given by the Scientific Professors, was both personal and insightful, which is not usual for most institutions. My greatest memory is working on the Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) project with Dr. Glenner Richards (EU) and Dr. Robert White (Children’s Mercy Hospital, KC, MO). This project’s purpose was to identify a gene that was modified in order to cure a mouse model with DMD. When this new gene was inserted into the genome of the mice, they no longer had DMD. The question we were trying to answer was where this new gene went in order to demonstrate that it was the modified gene and not the location that made a difference. The opportunity to lead 15 students in basic scientific research was extremely insightful in terms of management experience and understanding how research is conducted.
How did Evangel help you identify/develop your calling?
I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian or a medical doctor, but realized through the courses and experiences I had while at Evangel that this is not where my passion was. I still am completely mesmerized by the complexity of how the body functions. How is the body able to heal itself? How does the body develop from an infant into an adult? How can the immune system respond to so many different attacks? How can the over 200 cell types such as a neuron (brain cell) or epithelial cells (skin cell) that have different functions, use the same DNA? These extraordinarily complex questions are fascinating to learn. One could say I never stopped asking why, so entered into research where I never have to.
What advice would you give a current student preparing for the workforce?
Be flexible in your career ‘plans’. The type of job I ultimately ended up in did not exist while I was at EU. Make sure to actually do or shadow someone that does what you want to do with your career. Too many people spend all this time in school getting a degree, but ended up not actually enjoying it since they did not take the time to try out the job. Volunteer for speaking opportunities. Communication is a vital skill to doing well in the workforce.
What would you look for if you were in a position to hire new graduates from Evangel?
I want students who have experience in communicating and conducting research in both computer programming and biology. The tools that are needed are interdisciplinary. I want to be able to ask the same person how does a cell work and write a program to generate or organize data that gives me a graphic. Scientific information is becoming so complicated and large that without the ability to program, it would be inefficient to do it by hand. It is extremely valuable for someone to understand how biology works, but also able to write a program to answer a question with a plot. I predict the majority of scientists will need at least a basic understanding of programming to excel in the workforce.