Silencing Your Inner Critic: Spotlight on Michael D.L. Johnson

Sept. 29, 2020

Dr. Michael D.L. Johnson
Dr. Michael D.L. Johnson
Dr. Michael D.L. Johnson is a Keystone Symposia Fellow, a Health Scholar of the Aspen Ideas Festival, cofounder of the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project and assistant professor of immunobiology at the University of Arizona, where he currently studies how bacteria interact with metals, like copper, during infection. But, according to Johnson, identifying his propensity for science and finding the confidence to thrive in his field were limited by feelings of imposter syndrome early in his career. In fact, proving to himself that he belongs has been the most challenging thing he’s had to overcome as a Black microbiologist.

Although he never really questioned whether a career in science was possible, Johnson did question whether he was a good and worthy candidate. “I was quoted in the mSphere of Influence [article] saying, ‘by what miracle did I make it here?’ I’ve dealt and grappled with that in a lot of different ways in the past, but to overcome it, I had to identify the turning point, when I proved to myself that I belong here.”

Johnson grew up in the inner city of Chicago and became very involved in band in high school. After graduation, he went to Duke University to study music, and it was there that he went from getting a D in organic chemistry to tutoring his peers, an experience he called a “watershed moment.”

“It taught me I had a knack for science and the ability to overcome [hard] things,” he shared. And believing in himself is what Johnson said has freed him up to be successful in his field. Many people don’t recognize the significant drain that seeking outside approval causes. “You only have limited bandwidth. It takes away from [what’s in front of you] and limits your research, mentoring, teaching or service capacity.”

Now, Johnson said, “I can own my identity and persona in this particular space, which allows me to walk in it more freely.” He encourages everyone to find a moment that gives them confidence and build off of it. The moment can be big or small — a presentation at a meeting, successful western blot or a good grade on a quiz. “The influence of the moment only matters to you, but you need to find it,” he advised, making it clear that without self-belief, one will constantly try to prove themselves to others, thereby limiting their full potential for productivity, growth and success.

These days, Johnson’s bandwidth is allocated to his research and advocating for other historically underrepresented groups in science. His lab studies how bacteria respond to and overcome the stress of metal toxicity and is working to identify targets of copper toxicity as novel therapeutic candidates for the treatment of bacteria like Streptococcus pneumoniae, fungi like Coccidioides and now, possibly, even viruses like SARS-CoV-2.

This summer, Johnson co-founded the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project (NSURP), a program that matched underrepresented undergraduate students, whose career opportunities had been impacted by COVID-19, with mentors across the country and provided them with virtual summer research experiences.

“We were able to match about 130 Black, 9 indigenous, 125 Hispanic students,” Johnson reported. Approximately 30% of these students had previously been awarded a summer research opportunity that they were unable to attend as a result of COVID-19. And if it weren’t for NSURP, all participants would have experienced unfortunate gaps in their CV’s.

“It’s been a rewarding experience that came from a lot of angst watching the news and a need to be proactive instead of reactive,” Johnson shared. “I needed an outlet for all the craziness that’s been going on, and NSURP became that outlet.”

When asked how the lack of diversity in STEM has affected him personally, Johnson shared that his musician’s mindset has helped him stay grounded and compartmentalize his research. “My lab is my orchestra,” Johnson explained.Putting a lab together is like building a band. You need a variety of instruments to produce harmonic sound; not 5 oboes. And knowing when to speed up or slow down, in a way that directs the voice of those instruments without compromising them…is an art.

Furthermore, making music is by and large independent of ethnicity and gender. “Unless your face is on that album cover, people aren’t going to know who you are. They just listen to the music. That’s the mindset I took into research,” Johnson explained. It’s a mindset that pays more attention to the creation than biases about the creator, and although Johnson said that he was aware of the lack of representation when he transitioned to science, he found it more motivating than acutely bothersome. “Instead of thinking, ‘This place doesn’t have any Black people, I’m doomed,’ I thought, ‘This place doesn’t have any Black people, and we should do something about that.’ But it doesn’t affect my research. Those are 2 different things.”

Author: Ashley Hagen, M.S.

Ashley Hagen, M.S.
Ashley Hagen, M.S. is the Scientific and Digital Editor for the American Society for Microbiology and host of ASM's Microbial Minutes.