Johanna Holman is awarded UMaine Grad Student Employee of the Year!

Johanna Holman, Master’s of Nutrition student in the Ishaq Lab has been awarded the 2020-2021 University of Maine Graduate Student Employee of the Year!!!!

I met Johanna in the fall of 2019, when I was just establishing myself as a new Assistant Professor in the School of Food and Agriculture, and she was looking for an advisor for a graduate degree.  Right away, she impressed me with her background and enthusiasm for research.  I learned that Johanna began her undergraduate study as an art student before transitioning fluidly to science.  I see this is an asset – the ability to design visual aid and graphical representations of data is hugely important to science and sadly, not always a skill that scientists are trained to do. Johanna also had a number of service industry jobs, and initially in that first meeting, she was somewhat apologetic for not having been devoted to science jobs from the start.  I countered that I was pleased to see that she has worked in other industries, specifically in difficult service-related jobs.  It is often more important to have patience, dedication, and strong interpersonal skills, such as those gained by working in customer-facing jobs.  I believe that Johanna has and will continue to succeed because of her varied education and experience.

Once she became a science student during her undergraduate study, she worked in the laboratories of Drs. Yanyan Li, Associate Professor (of nutrition) in the College of Science and Humanities, and Tao Zhang, Assistant Professor of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences, both of Husson University in Bangor.  There, she has performed nutritional biochemistry, worked with mouse models, and developed an idea of what she wanted to study in graduate school and pursue as a career. 

Johanna officially joined my lab and started as a Master’s Student of Nutrition at UMaine in fall 2020, and immediately got to work.  Not only did she begin preparations for the massive undertaking that is part of her project, but she began mentoring several undergraduates on and off campus, and started as a first time teaching assistant for the Chemistry department, which required navigating virtual labs.

Johanna’s project focuses on whether consumption of specific broccoli sprout preparations will elicit changes in the gut microbiota, to the effect of improving the production of microbiota-specific bioactives that have local anti-inflammatory effects, and promoting intestinal homeostasis by reducing dysbiosis. This project is a continuation of previous research on bioactive compounds in broccoli, completed in the labs of Drs. Yanyan Li and Tao Zhang at Husson University in Bangor.  While some of the work may be similar, the skill set is entirely new.  For the winter break, Johanna was managing a 40-mouse study for 5 weeks, which has resulted in hundreds of samples collected, hundreds of data time points, and enough follow-up laboratory and analysis work to keep her occupied for an entire year.  She has learned how to culture bacteria in an anaerobic chamber, which is a notoriously fussy machine that requires regular attention, as well as to grow them under different conditions for biochemical analysis and enzyme activity.  She will be learning DNA extraction, DNA sequencing library preparation, DNA sequence analysis, and will lead the generation of a large manuscript on the results.

It might seem too early to recommend a graduate student for this award after just one semester, but it is remarkable that a new master’s student could achieve all of this in their first semester during a pandemic.  I have informally mentored graduate and undergraduate students for years, and it is easy to spot the ones who will go far in science. Johanna has a highly successful career ahead of her, and I am honored to be one stop on that path.  This award will not only acknowledge the incredible amount of work she has accomplished, but it will support an early career researcher who has every quality to make research a hospitable and collaborate place.

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