Meet Dr. Joshua Johnson

Written by Dawit Tesfaye in Honor of Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, Dr. Dawit Tesfaye has interviewed Dr. Joshua Johnson, Assistant Professor of Reproductive Sciences and Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Colorado-Anschutz Medical Center. It was a pleasure reading about his journey and his current research. I found it interesting to share his experience with you all. Enjoy reading it!!

1. What is your current position, and what does it entail?

I am an Assistant Professor of Reproductive Sciences and Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Colorado-Anschutz Medical Center. Most of my time is spent leading a basic/translational research laboratory where we study ovarian function and dysfunction, and mechanisms that drive ovarian aging. I am also lucky enough to be involved in medical education on campus and help to direct the reproductive sciences teaching for early-year medical students.

2. Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?

I am originally from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, a beautiful small town right between Milwaukee and Madison. I grew up in a family that loved spending time together outdoors, summer or winter. As a boy, I liked science just about as much as any other subject, and I really wasn’t sure what I’d like to do for a career until quite late in college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One afternoon, I had the incredible fortune of an after-seminar visit with Nobel Laureate Howard Temin (discoverer of the enzyme reverse transcriptase, along with many other seminal contributions to virology and cancer biology). Dr. Temin took a few hours to visit with me and one other student, and his kindness and clear description of what his scientific career meant to him were mesmerizing. I left that visit with his clear message that it is a privilege to be able to address scientific questions and hopefully add to the sum of human knowledge. It has taken hard work, luck, and perseverance to keep my research program going and gain my current position here at the University of Colorado where I am surrounded by brilliant and truly collegial colleagues!

3. What are you most excited to do this year?

One thing that I am most excited to do this year is present some of our work at the SSR meeting in Ottawa and before that, the Society for Reproductive Investigation meeting in Australia – a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting. Living in Colorado allows me to enjoy skiing with my family, and if you can’t reach me, I am hopefully somewhere back in the trees at Keystone with my 12-year-old daughter!

4. Are there ways in which you think your heritage has affected your perspective or career trajectory?

As an adoptee, I do sometimes wonder whether my interest in reproductive biology comes in part from having that background. Overall, however, I think that my African-American heritage probably does inform my thinking about science. It is clear the public generally, and patients specifically, view scientific and medical information through the lens of who is delivering it. We’re doing our job well when the public benefits from clearer information about complex systems like our reproductive systems, and diverse voices bringing this information to the public can only be helpful.

As I have become more experienced with the clinical side of reproductive medicine and assisted reproductive technologies, I have become more attuned to the inequities in maternal and neonatal health care, including who gets access to the best care. Improving our understanding of the mechanisms that control reproductive processes should help to lead, at least in the long term, to better, less expensive, and more equitable care. I have also witnessed the inequitable treatment of underrepresented minority trainees (including medical trainees) and have helped mentor those affected through some difficult times. I am grateful to be seeing increasingly diverse scientists and clinicians pushing together seeking knowledge, improving care for our fellow human beings, and lifting up the next generation of talented voices to keep that progress going.

5. What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists, especially those coming from diverse backgrounds?

This is an intimidating question. I would like to tell future scientists of all backgrounds, but maybe especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, that there is always a place for you here. I was lucky that I fell into a research topic that has truly been a pleasure, and sometimes an obsession, to work on. Hang around long enough, and you may find an area of interest that’s just as rewarding for you. As a last thought, one of the greatest pleasures of my career in academic science has been meeting people from diverse backgrounds, that come from literally all around the globe, that share the excitement of working on problems in reproductive biology just like me. Science is challenging and extremely humbling, but I can’t imagine a more fulfilling career than being able to solve problems with these incredibly interesting people!

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