Jenna Johnson can’t stop singing the praises of the tiny, transparent, E. coli–loving roundworms known officially as Caenorhabditis elegans.
“It’s an ideal model organism for doing research in developmental biology and neurology,” she says. “C. elegans has a very short life span, a lot of progeny, and a surprisingly similar genome to humans. They’re fascinating organisms.”
Johnson, a biology and history double major, was introduced to the microscopic worms while conducting research on the toxic gas hydrogen sulfide through the Amgen Scholars Program at the University of Washington in Seattle the summer after her sophomore year. It was a life-changing experience for the Stillwater, Minn., native and Phi Beta Kappa member, who also found time while at Luther to volunteer as a Spanish interpreter for the Decorah Free Clinic and a care companion with St. Croix Hospice. “I had no clue that I wanted to do research, but, after spending that summer at UW, I felt really drawn to it,” she says. “I learned how to troubleshoot problems—because most of the time what you do in the research lab doesn’t work—and how to fail gracefully. I also experienced the joy of success in the lab, and that’s a pretty cool feeling.”
Johnson continued doing research with C. elegans when she returned to Luther, joining the lab of Stephanie Fretham ’05, Luther assistant professor of biology, in fall 2014. There she used the microscopic organism to examine the connection between iron and disrupted protein homeostasis in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Johnson presented her work—which was supported by an R.J. McElroy Grant—at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) last April. “I never expected to love the research process so much, but knowing that I am contributing to the body of scientific knowledge—and that at any moment in time I may be the only person in the world that knows this one particular thing—is very much a driving force for me,” says Johnson, who also spent the summer after her junior year conducting research, that time on protein and DNA interactions at the University of Iowa.
This summer Johnson moved to the East Coast, where she will spend the next year (or two) conducting research at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md., as the recipient of a highly competitive Post-baccaulaureate Cancer Research Training Award. It’s the next step toward her ultimate goal—earning a joint M.D./Ph.D. degree and working as an academic physician at a large university. “During the summer I spent at the University of Iowa, I shadowed doctors who had the joint degree and realized that this is the career I wanted,” she says. “I love the idea that my experience as a doctor will inform my research, and I’m willing to put in the time—eight or nine more years of school—to make that happen.”