“Follow your passion. Follow wherever it takes you. And don’t ignore new passions”
Recently, I had the privilege to talk to Dr. Tory P. Johnson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology, about her transition from postdoc to faculty. Her exceptional journey from a wildlife biologist to a neurologist studying undiagnosed autoimmune diseases of the central nervous system was exciting and full of surprises. Guiding her every step of the way was the principle “Follow your passion. Follow wherever it takes you. And don’t ignore new passions”. Her current field of research is a rather circuitous consequence of following that principle. While working as a wildlife biologist her observation that West Nile Virus infection alters bird behavior, led her to study viral infections of the central nervous system and neuroimmunology. Along the way, in order to bolster her knowledge of classical immunology, she joined Dr. Antony Rosen’s laboratory for postdoctoral training. In 2016, Drs. Rosen and Johnson received the Mentor-Mentee Award from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. This award reminds her that there is always an opportunity to change, to learn from your mistakes and become a better scientist. Stating that the key to a successful mentor-mentee relationship is honest communication, Dr. Johnson emphasized the importance of being humble and allowing yourself to be mentored at all stages of your career.
Q: Why did you become a scientist and why did you choose your field of research?
TJ: In college, I took a class on bird behavior, ornithology, and just fell in love with it. Unfortunately that was the spring semester of my senior year of college. So, I called my dad and told him that I just took this class, this is what I want to do and I need to change majors. He gave me his full support. So, I changed my major at the last minute and became a wildlife biologist. It took me 5 years to complete my undergrad because I added on a year for changing my major, but my dad was really supportive. He always told me that if you are doing something that you love you are never working a day in your life. So, I started my career as a wildlife biologist working for the federal government. I was studying bird behavior and during that time there was the first major outbreak of West Nile virus in America. The birds I was holding in captivity changed their behavior dramatically because they became infected with the virus. I got really interested in how viral infection could change animal behavior. But I didn’t really have the tools to study that. So I went back to University, did a masters and PhD in pathology to learn how to study disease and disease processes, which is really far from where I started. But once again, my father and my grandfather both told me if you are doing what you love it’s worth it. So, I just started following my passion and I have done that throughout my whole career now.
Q: What criteria did you look for when choosing your mentor?
TJ: I chose my postdoc mentor with a lot of care. So, I read the literature a lot and I knew I needed training in immunology and I needed training outside the nervous system. I had done all my pre-doctoral work and my initial postdoc within the field of neuroimmunology. The fields of neuroimmunology and immunology are not the same. We don’t use the same tools, we don’t think of cells the same way. So, I knew that I needed additional training in classical immunology. Antony Rosen had just put out this very elegant paper on cross-reactive antibodies. I read that paper and I was immediately interested in how this auto-antibody can change an enzyme function. I wrote an email to him directly saying this is the work I’ve done and gave him a little paragraph about what I did, but I’m really looking for a lab who can teach me classical immunology, help me understand how the immune system works, how do autoimmune process begin and how are they sustained.
Q: What is the secret to a successful mentor-mentee relationship?
TJ: As a trainee you really have to trust that your mentor knows what they are doing. But your Mentor can’t read your mind. So, if you don’t tell your mentor what your hopes are they can’t I fulfill those needs. It is a two-way street. I think communication is really important. But also, and this is something that I didn’t learn till later, is that you have to be willing to be mentored. Sometimes you have to humble yourself and listen to what they are really saying and know that it comes from the best place. They want what’s best for you and they want to see you succeed. Allowing yourself to be mentored is sometimes challenging, especially if you’ve already had your doctorate, already done a short postdoc and gotten some papers out. Listening to someone very new can be very challenging. But let go of that sense of control and just allow yourself to be mentored. Also everyone has different styles. Some people will tell you directly what you need to do. Other mentors are very subtle and repeat messages to you without being so direct. So, it is important in a mentor-mentee relationship to also listen and to have an open mind. I think it really boils down to good communication. The key to success is honest communication. I had to have uncomfortable conversations, not just conversations that I relished or enjoyed. But because of those uncomfortable conversations I have terrific mentor-mentee relationships that have been sustained throughout my career.
Q: Describe your typical day
TJ: My typical day. I get up in the morning and exercise everyday. I think that really helps in my work-life balance. I don’t tend to think of work-life balance often, because I think about science all the time, it’s hard to turn it off. Then I come to work. I always meet with the people in my lab, see what they are doing, if they need help and what experiments are going on that day. A lot of my day is spent in meetings, which was a difficult transition from postdoc to faculty. But I have changed the way I think about them. I try to think about meetings as more of just talking about science with friends, which is quite nice, and I will try to keep them focused and productive. Answering emails and being a part of committees and that type of work does take up some of your time. I do try to be at the bench at least some part of everyday and several days a week I try only to be at the bench, doing or planning experiments. I also spend a lot of time reading and writing everyday, and I think it’s a good habit even as a postdoc, to get into writing something everyday, even if it’s just a paragraph, even if it’s just a few sentences. I try to spend Fridays reading and catching up with literature. I think it’s important to have activities outside of work as well. So, I take German lessons and I do yoga. I think with a life in Science we’re really lucky because work isn’t really a chore.
Q: Describe your job search strategy. What obstacles did you face during the transition period? What is your advice to postdoc who want to pursue academic research?
TJ: First of all, my job search was interesting, because I wasn’t actually searching. I was starting to put out feelers. I had contacted a couple of Universities and I had reached out to my mentor Avi (Dr. Avindra Nath) to ask him for advice about where to look for jobs. He suggested, of course, the National Institutes of Health. But it was important to me that I put some distance between my mentor and myself. Because one thing you need to have is independence in order for granting agencies to treat you like you are independent. One way to show independence is physical separation. So I decided I needed outside advice. When I went to talk to Antony Rosen about it he said that I’m a rheumatologist, I really don’t know what’s going on in the neurology field, you need to talk to a neurologist. He said I think you should talk to Justin McArthur, he is the head of Neurology here and he will know what’s going on all over the world. So, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do. I met with Justin McArthur. I said I wanted to ask him for career advice. I told my plan and why I want to be in a clinical department. I wanted to work on autoimmune mechanisms and I wanted to do it in the context of patients who had undiagnosed diseases or patients with rare diseases. What I really want to do is patient-based research. So, it was really important for me to be in a clinical department, where I had access to patient samples and access to physicians who could work with me very closely to help me understand the clinical presentation. When Justin McArthur heard what I wanted to do and how I see myself fitting into the department, he asked where I had interviewed. I said well that’s what I’m here for, where should I interview? And he said great, let’s sign you up for an interview here.
Q: How did you feel your mentor supported your professional development during your training?
TJ: Oh I was so supported. I’m still supported, I feel like I have incredible support and I have been supported all along in all phases of my career. Avi Nath was a terrific mentor to me and he continues to be so. Antony Rosen, he shaped me into the scientist I am today. He’s been an amazing mentor to me and has really helped me see myself the way I need to in order to move my career forward and in order for me to be in the best version of myself. He’s helped me immensely.
Q: What is your advice for young scientists?
TJ: Follow your passion. Follow it wherever it takes you. And don’t ignore new passions.
Q: How has receiving the award affected or changed you?
TJ: The mentor-mentee award is one of the things that I am most proud of. Because, what it represents to me is the relationship between Antony and I, and how he took me from a good scientist to someone who could be a successful academic researcher. He taught me a great deal, some of what I wrote in the essay that I submitted for that award. There are a few things he taught me, and one of the most important things is to only do experiments that matter. Winning that award came with finances. I’ve been able to use those funds to attend conferences that have really helped my career. I was invited to give a talk and they could cover some of the cost but not all of it. So I could use that money to give an invited talk at an International Conference. But most importantly, it reminds me that I need still to be mentored. Whenever I look at that award, I think that I won the award because I changed, because Antony mentored me in a way that allowed me to change, that fundamentally altered the scientist I was into who I became. So, it always reminds me that change is possible, that you can always become a better scientist and you can always learn from your mistakes.