Hometown: Akron, Ohio
Undergraduate: North Carolina Central University
Desinia Johnson, 2nd year Toxicology student, may be one of the few people who feel like her life has slowed down since she came to graduate school. She attended NCCU as an undergraduate on a track/cross country scholarship and led her team to nationals her first year there. She was also a Chemistry major who also committed herself to doing undergraduate research in the lab nearly the entire time she was in school. And despite all this, she still found the time to learn salsa dancing and co-found a salsa club at NCCU that is still going strong. “There weren’t a lot of people at Central that knew about salsa dancing so we just tried to draw people in by finding similarities to other programs on campus and doing some joint events. We even started a yearly event called ‘Culture Shock’ to bring awareness about all different kinds of cultural expressions on one day. It was cool to help people experience something they’d never seen before.” Now that’s she’s getting settled in to life at UNC, Desinia says she still makes some time to dance but she has taken a break from running. Still, her experience as a runner is paying off. She says when you are running cross country “you have to be a person that perseveres, it’s a long run. You have to believe in yourself and focus on the goal at hand. You have to push yourself when you are the only one out in the woods running. This helped me with being a graduate student and doing research – because I can look at the past challenges that I have overcome and know that I can do it.”
Desinia is certainly not someone who shies away from a challenge. She’s known she wanted to be a scientist since she moved here from Ohio in middle school and she has made the most of the opportunities available to her. She attended Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School and was part of a biotechnology/science community there where she was able to take a medical technician course and learn different lab techniques. Upon being accepted at NCCU, she participated in ITSSTEM (Initiative for Transforming and Sustaining Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Program which included a 6 week summer enrichment course before she started freshman year. She knew she wanted to do research and and started working in Antonio Baines’s lab almost right away her first year. “I wanted to get involved as early as possible and get as much experience as I could. I was in the Baines lab for three years. It was challenging because of courses and track, but it opened my eyes to what research is. I started to love it!” Later she was accepted into the MARC program and through that she got opportunities to do research in other places during the summers. One summer she participated in the SOLAR (Summer of Learning and Opportunity) program at UNC and worked in James Swenberg’s lab.
Despite all the experience she had, Desinia wasn’t sure that she was ready for graduate school when she graduated. She decided to do a post-baccalaureate year in a lab so she applied to UNC’s PREP (Post baccalaureate Research Education Program) Program and spent a year working with Ilona Jaspers. “The program gave me the opportunity to work in a lab more independently with my own project. I really liked the work and it showed me that I could do this. I was doing well in the graduate courses I took and it boosted my confidence and helped me feel ready to apply to graduate school.” When she did apply, Desinia chose UNC and ultimately joined the Toxicology program. “I was curious about everything and liked that the BBSP program let you explore different programs. I wound up joining Toxicology because it’s a very broad program – there is immunotoxicology, cardiotoxicology, all sorts of types. I am still getting broad exposure even though I’m in a single PhD program.”
One of the major perks of UNC’s Toxicology program is the opportunity to work in government research labs at the US EPA or NIEHS facilities in RTP. Desinia joined the lab of Urmila Kodavanti at the EPA where the group focuses on understanding mechanisms of cardiovascular and metabolic health effects of inhaled air pollutants. Desinia’s project specifically aims to understand the mechanisms by which two air pollutants, ozone and combustion exhaust, trigger metabolic distress that can contribute to diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases. For Desinia this research has a personal connection to her own life. She says “some people that I am familiar with are dealing with cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Interestingly, they are not obese and they don’t have a considerably high- fat diet. For example, one of my family members has been regularly working out most his life and yet he was diagnosed with type II diabetes. This made me curious about other factors that may play a role in the predisposition to these diseases. My hope is that my project will broaden our understanding of what can influence the development of metabolic and CV diseases.” Desinia said she has been given a lot of freedom to explore and develop in the lab and that she feels she is truly starting to develop on her own as a scientist.
Even though she is relatively new to graduate school, Desinia seems to have figured out work life balance. Perhaps that comes from all the activities she juggled when she was an undergraduate. Her approach is simply to remember when she is busy with work that there will always been time for fun later and then, importantly, to remember to actually take that time and do something outside of lab on a regular basis. For Desinia fun can be salsa dancing or hanging out with friends – anything that can help her “take the things that seem big and brush them off my shoulders for a while.” Desinia also has an unusually healthy view of criticism, an important part of the scientific process. Many students struggle as they learn to deal with negative feedback but she says “I don’t feedback personally. I try to remember that this person is helping me be a better scientist. If no one ever tells you how to improve then you’ll just always stay the same.” When asked to reflect on her pathway to graduate school and her own unique outlook on life, Desinia is reminded of her grandmother who taught her that while there will always be obstacles and other people’s opinions to distract her, it was up to her to make her own path. She is eager to share this wisdom with other students just getting started in science. One of Desinia’s goals is to go back to NCCU and talk to other students interested in science. “I love to work with others and mentor them. I want to be an example and show them that if I was able to do this, they can, too.” Her advisor, Urmila Kodavanti, says Desinia brings this same passion for science and for life to the research lab: “We are so fortunate to have her join our research team. She is smart with hidden talents. Her leadership qualities, sense of responsibility, collaboration and people loving personality are sure to contribute to her continued success.”
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