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STP Young Investigator of the Year: Kennita Johnson

By Colleen Chandler
August 2005

Kennita Johnson
Kennita Johnson (Photo by Colleen Chandler)

Kennita Johnson, who started working at NIEHS just 18 months ago, was selected for the Young Investigator Award at the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicologic Pathology in June.

Johnson, who attended the conference to present her research, said she let out a scream when she discovered the blue ribbon signifying the award on one of her posters.

Her poster, "The Evaluation of Cardiac and Other Soft Tissue Abnormalities in Rat Teratology Studies Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)," looked at birth defects using non-invasive imaging techniques. That poster also resulted in a travel award and platform presentation at the June Teratology Society meeting. She is equally enthusiastic about her other poster, "Ultrasonic Analysis, A Tool for Early Detection of Cardiotoxic Lesions: Preliminary Findings."

Johnson's arrival at NIEHS and the Laboratory of Experimental Pathology coincided with a major emphasis on imaging. Until coming to NIEHS, Johnson had no experience in animal research, and lab chief Bob Maronpot said he wasn't sure how it would work to add a postdoc with a physics background to a group of pathologists. He said it quickly became apparent that Johnson has a knack for communicating with scientists from different disciplines. Johnson became an integral part of the team, reviewing and modifying study protocols, participating in study management meetings, identifying unique ways to analyze and present imaging data, and taking a leadership role in all the lab's imaging efforts.

"I have been delighted with Kennita's interactions with our NIEHS staff in general, with LEP staff in particular, and with our research contractors," Maronpot said. "She has been extremely productive, working on cutting-edge rodent-imaging protocols where no two studies are the same. She has shown the potential for micro-x-ray, micro-CT, ultrasound, and MRI imaging modalities as tools for NIEHS researchers. All this in only 18 months."

Her work in the Laboratory of Experimental Pathology includes X-ray characterization of osteonecrosis and bone growth plate suppression, X-ray analysis of bones from mice exposed to potential endocrine disruptors, MRI images of liver vasculature from rats treated with acetaminophen, and micro-CT examinations of live rats for detection of pulmonary fibrosis.

Former NIEHS Director Ken Olden and Charle League, Summers of Discovery Program coordinator, recruited Johnson, who was a Meyerhoff scholar at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. The Meyerhoff program is designed to encourage African-American students to pursue undergraduate biological science degrees.

Johnson completed her undergrad work at UMB, and then went to the University of Florida, where she earned a master's degree in medical physics and a doctorate in biomedical engineering. As she neared completion of her doctoral program, Johnson was invited to present at NIEHS. It was during that visit, she said, that she first learned that NIEHS conducts small animal imaging. It was at NIEHS, she said, that she discovered her love of research.

Johnson said LEP staff has been very patient and helpful, tutoring her in toxicology and pathology. She enjoys the intellectual freedom afforded at NIEHS, which allows her to develop her own style. Meanwhile, Maronpot says he is eagerly looking forward to Johnson's continued work in multimodality imaging.

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