By LaTina Emerson
When Gem Johnson was a junior in high school, she was a laboratory intern at a local community college. She was curious to learn more about research because her high school, The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Lawrenceville, Ga., emphasized the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. The experience solidified her passion for being in the lab.
Now as a junior Biomedical Science and Enterprise major in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences and also an Honors College student, Johnson has been working on cardiovascular research in Dr. Ping Song’s lab in the Center for Molecular and Translational Medicine for two years, alongside her research mentor Dr. Dawn Wu and other lab members. She’s a co-author of an abstract for Experimental Biology’s 2021 annual meeting of five scientific societies, a huge honor for an undergraduate student. The research opportunity was made possible by the University Assistantship Program. She’s done this all maintaining a 4.13 grade point average.
“I love research because it grants me the opportunity to learn something new through first-hand observations,” Johnson said. “Discovering something in the laboratory is such a rewarding and satisfying experience.”
To land her Undergraduate Research Assistant position, Johnson interviewed with labs across campus. Her research internship in high school focused on the cellular pathway that inhibits hypertension, offering her first glimpse into cardiovascular research.
“I guess you can say that this research chose me because when I realized that Dr. Song was also focusing on cardiovascular mechanisms and working in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences, the same area as my major, it felt like a perfect match,” Johnson said.
Before the pandemic, Johnson analyzed data and conducted experiments. Now, all of Johnson’s duties are performed remotely, including completing a review for a collection of scientific papers and participating in weekly, virtual laboratory meetings in which lab members discuss their findings.
After finishing her undergraduate studies at Georgia State, Johnson’s goal is to enter an M.D./Ph.D. program.
“I truly enjoy how intertwined research and medicine are, and I would love to have a career where I can continue working in the laboratory while also being able to interact with and treat patients,” Johnson said.
Johnson is assisting her mentor with research focused on Apolipoprotein E, a critical protein involved in fat digestion that appears in various forms in the human body. Specific versions can contribute to the development of cardiovascular diseases and hyperlipoproteinemia, a disorder that results from an inability to break down lipids or fats in the body.
“This study is important because it can open the gates for improved research for cardiovascular diseases,” Johnson said. “It’s fascinating to see how your work can translate to future projects and have real-world applications to the medical field.”