Fifteen years ago I did a photo-story on the play “The Story of Orange.”
Backstage, a colorful 9-year-old “parrot” lady asked, “How did you like our play?”
I hunkered down eyeball to eyeball with her and said, “Of all the plays we’ve seen worldwide, no play has moved me so much as this.”
She knew I meant it. She asked, “Have you told our director?”
She was/is Kelli Johnson, who started at Harbor Heights Elementary, then went to Voyager as part of the Challenge Class in fourth grade.
At Goodman Middle School, “A retired rocket scientist was my math teacher,” she said.
“I got my first taste of research science at Gig Harbor High. My biology class freshman-year teacher, JoAnn Moore, brought research equipment for students interested in pursuing biological science in college. We learned to handle equipment like pipets and centrifuges. Getting those basics instilled so early was a huge benefit.”
Johnson became a full-time Running Start student at Tacoma Community College and took Linguistic Anthropology.
“It was incredibly influential,” she said. “I still apply what I learned.”
In her senior year at Gig Harbor High, Johnson knew she wanted to continue to graduate school after getting her bachelor’s in biology.
“The University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, was one of the best for pre-med, nursing, and pre-grad studies in biology. Within a month of my applying, UNC responded. I went with my mom to Greeley, fell in love with the campus, and a 15-minute meeting, which lasted two hours with Dr. Patrick Burns, assistant professor of biology at the UNC School of Biological Sciences, sold me. He showed me his personal research lab, explained his current work, gave me his phone extension and told me to call as soon as my grades were in. He gave me a Junior Pin Key, my student account, and got me into upper-level classes that would be full had I registered with other freshmen. No other university went so far for a single student. I left knowing I’d be back.
She graduated GHHS/TCC with her associate degree and joined the Honors program at UNC, which taught her to design and publish a research thesis. Inspired by TCC classes, Psychology and Linguistic Anthropology, Johnson’s paper was on human influences on language change, which won a Research Excellence Nomination and a presentation award.
Her senior year, Dr. Judith Leatherman, associate professor of biology at the UNC School of Biological Sciences, took one of her graduate students and Johnson to the Drosophila conference in Washington D.C.
“I won a Biological Research Excellence Award from UNC for my work with her,” Johnson said.
Johnson then applied to graduate school.
“I won’t lie, interviewing at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine was intimidating,” she said.
Waiting in the (JH) Physiology Library for interviews, an older gentleman joined her. The two discussed the campus, Baltimore, things to do in the area, and her research interests.
“I said I was following research in cystic fibrosis, as I knew a little boy with it,” Johnson said. “Talking about different methods I’d read, I mentioned research by Dr. (William) Guggino in the Cellular and Molecular Physiology program at Hopkins, the program I was interviewing for. I said I believed it to be the right way to approach the problem and where I’d go with his research.”
At that point in the conversation, the secretary came and said to the older gentleman, “Here’s your first interview of the day.”
“He stood, shook my hand and said, ‘Good afternoon, Kelli, I’m Dr. Guggino,’” Johnson said. “I about had a heart attack. He smiled and said, ‘Do you mind staying to finish our conversation?’”
Turned out Guggino is the director of physiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
A week later Johnson received an email offering her a place in the physiology program at Johns Hopkins, all expenses paid. She began studying at Johns Hopkins, is currently in her second year studying development and host/pathogen interactions of the human gut, will take exams in 2016, and in two to three years complete graduate studies for her Ph.D.
And it all started right here in the Peninsula School District.
Hugh McMillan is a longtime contributing writer for the Gateway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.