Andy Johnson

Graduate Research Prize Winners 2010

Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson

I grew up on a pig farm in rural Iowa, USA.  As an 11-year old there my grandmother and great-grandmother died of cancer.  Upon returning from the second funeral and wanting to prevent others from losing their grandmothers, I asked my 5th grade teacher what profession cures diseases.  Her answer was immunology, and I've wanted to be an immunologist ever since.  Therefore, I took every science class available at my high school then obtained a degree in biochemistry from William Jewell College, a small liberal arts college that requires its science majors to conduct research.

I was then fortunate enough to be accepted to the 3rd class of NIH-Oxford/Cambridge biomedical research scholars.  After getting a passport (for I had never left the US before), I travelled to Washington D.C. then Oxford to meet with potential mentors.  I ended up selecting an ambitious project that would involve the combined efforts of four laboratories: Drs. Ronald Schwartz and Michael Lenardo at the NIH, Dr. Christopher Goodnow in Canberra, Australia, and Dr. Richard Cornall at Oxford University.  The project started at the NIH where I designed high throughput screens to assess T cell proliferation and cell death.  I then moved to Canberra for 9 months to implement these screens on the mouse mutagenesis library there.  The most interesting strains I found were sent to Oxford and the NIH where we mapped the mutations and further characterized the cellular and biochemical phenotype of the mice.

One strain with impaired T cell development despite mostly normal activation of the primary pathways downstream of T cell receptor signaling became the focus of my project.  This strain carries a premature stop codon in a previously uncharacterized protein that is now named Themis.  Themis contains a unique protein fold that defines a family of 5 mostly unstudied vertebrate genes with orthologs in nearly all animal lineages.  As you can read about in The Scientist, we weren't the only ones in the world (or even at the NIH and Oxford for that matter) to be studying this gene.

In addition to research, I enjoyed playing basketball for the Oxford Blues and making good use of my new passport.  I'm now a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA where I study the metabolic regulation of T cell development during viral infections.


See list of potential projects