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Making the Grade

Scientists of color continue to make significant contributions to America's quest for knowledge. One case in point is Stephanie Johnson (pictured left), a postdoctoral fellow at the Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Johnson's commitment to studying neurological and memory disorders will further improve our efforts to defeat or at least minimize the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's disease. Johnson's life and career is one that exemplifies the courage and dedication needed to pursue any dream, not just an academic career in neuroscience. Her story is one example of the many scientists of color who have achieved success despite naysayers.

Educational Background

Johnson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and attended both public and private schools there. She had always had a keen interest in science and was fascinated by the practice of medicine, so by the fourth grade she decided she wanted to become a doctor. Her family and friends and in particular her mother encouraged her to pursue her dreams. She says, "My most important mentor would have to be my mother, because she is a woman of true strength and integrity. She went back to school and graduated with her degree during my junior year in college. She is a shining example of wisdom and knowledge, and I will always consider her my most important influence."

As a child, Johnson never had to experience the negative aspects of being interested in science such as being called names or ostracized. "I was fortunate to have friends who also shared the same vision, so we were able to motivate one another," she explains.

After graduating from high school in 1989, she chose Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, for her undergraduate studies. While at Hampton she was introduced to the world of neuropsychology through her adviser, who persuaded her to become involved in research studies. She says, "I then became interested in brain behavior and ultimately chose the field of neuropsychology/cognitive neuroscience as my area of expertise." Johnson completed her B.S. in psychology from Hampton in 1993 and went on to obtain her M.A. in experimental neuropsychology at Howard University in 1995 and her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from Catholic University of America in 2002.

Research Focus

Johnson's present position as a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University allows her to conduct research on genetic and environmental determinants in the development of Alzheimer's disease and examine the differences across ethnicities. She explains, "My research focuses on the affects of environmental stress and depression on the onset of Alzheimer's disease. I also have clinical responsibilities in which I provide neuropsychological assessments for patients at the neurological and memory disorders clinic." The clinical portion of her responsibilities is a specialty service and deals primarily with various types of dementia.

Her work at Duke hasn't been a solo act. She credits her postdoctoral adviser as playing a major role in her development as a researcher. "Christopher Edwards has been a phenomenal mentor. He exemplifies intellect and understanding for all of his mentees. He is truly a gift, and I am honored to have him as a mentor, adviser, and friend."

Best Advice

To take advantage of Johnson's vast experience and knowledge, MiSciNet asked her to reveal a few keys of success for students. Her words of wisdom will benefit anyone who desires to achieve and loves to learn.

Seek a Mentor and a Support System

First and foremost, students of color must find a mentor. Unfortunately, I did not find a good mentor until late in my training. I am confident that had I had the appropriate mentoring, I could have avoided some of the pitfalls that come with pursuing a scientific career.

Second, you need to find a support system, because you will face challenges that many of your peers will not have to deal with. Get together with other students of color so you can create a support network. You will definitely need it. You must also be confident! Your intelligence will often be challenged, and you must know that you would not be in the program if you did not have what it takes to be successful.

If you are in a graduate or medical school program already, join professional organizations in your field. This again will provide a network of other students like yourself who can provide support when needed. Most fields of study have professional organizations that are specific to an ethnicity such as the National Medical Association or the Association of Black Psychologists. These organizations will have resources that can be helpful during and after you have completed your training.

Seek Experts in the Field

Seek out individuals in the field you are interested in pursuing. Get to know them and explain your long-term goals. Also, research the field to make sure this is something that you really want to do. Getting involved in research as an undergraduate student will help you decide if that area of study is right for you. Make sure you are current on the trends and significant advances, as this could potentially influence your decision to pursue a career in this field.

Never Give Up

I want students of color to know that I had a number of challenging experiences throughout my graduate school tenure. There were many times when I wanted to give up and do something else. Because I was the first African American to graduate with a Ph.D. with an emphasis in cognitive neuroscience from Catholic University, I had to face significant obstacles because of my color and gender. However, I was persistent and did not give up. Today I still encounter obstacles, but I think that my experiences in graduate school taught me how to navigate them. With hard work and dedication, you can achieve anything you want!

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at

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