Grad Student Q&A: Brooke Johnson
By Wendy Plump
Monday, Sep. 28, 2020
When Brooke Johnson was an undergraduate and varsity athlete at Rice University, her track coach approached her one day with details about a strenuous workout. Laughing, she asked him, “Do you understand the biochemical reactions that have to take place in order for me to be able to do this?” The incident underscored how much her chemistry major was already informing and enriching her life. Today, as a first-generation college student and a third-year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry’s Seyedsayamdost lab, Johnson has embraced the learning opportunities at Princeton to make the most of her time here.
How did you decide to study chemistry?
Ever since taking high school chemistry, it’s been really interesting to me just how fundamental and intuitive the subject is. I’ve always had broad interests and I feel like chemistry is at the intersection of many of them. I think that’s one of the reasons I stuck with it. I was a varsity student athlete as an undergraduate at Rice. Taking freshman chemistry, my teammates and I would study for chemistry exams as we ran track. We would talk about the concepts and how one builds on the other. It’s interesting how much I was able to learn just by discussing while running. This was on our longer runs, obviously.
What is it like coming from Houston to Princeton?
It is a big question because my family is all in Houston. My parents were born and raised in Houston. I was born and raised in Houston, and went to undergrad just half an hour from my house. They both sort of move slowly; they’re not really busy cities. That gives me a lot of time to reflect and just think, and kind of explore at my own pace and have conversations with people.
What persuaded you to pursue your doctorate at Princeton Chemistry?
I knew Princeton was going to be a really good place for me because of my goal to work, possibly, in higher education. I’d love to lecture to students but also work in administration in some capacity. Because Princeton is predominantly an undergraduate university I knew that, in addition to doing really rigorous science, I could explore some of these other interests. For example, this year I’m a resident grad student at one of the undergraduate residential colleges for students interested in the humanities and the creative arts. Who would have thought of that position for someone in chemistry?
How did you choose the “Mo” Seyedsayamdost lab?
I knew I wanted chemical biology, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. So a very important question I asked graduate students during my first visit was, if you weren’t in the lab you’re in now, which lab would you join? A few people said the Mo lab. So I thought, okay, I really should meet this professor. Quickly after meeting him, I thought, he’s really great. I felt he could draw out some of my strengths. For example, I knew I wanted to be transparent and communicative, and say whenever I’m struggling in the lab. I wanted that trust to be there. The fact that Mo was so approachable, I thought, okay, this is a good space.
What’s important to consider before joining a lab?
I think it's important to think about how your strengths and weaknesses would fit in. Grad school is such an opportunity to make discoveries and do something that’s never been done before. In addition to learning science, it’s really learning about yourself, learning about your advisor, and learning how you all work together. As for my experience as a first-generation college student and an African American, one thing I heard in orientation my first year was that if you’re a minority student you may have feelings of “Do I belong?” more often and more intensely. This has been a good thing for me to remind myself of often: many people feel this way, but you might feel this way more.
Tell us about your research...
My project is about using the enzymes that are responsible for giving vancomycin its bioactivity to generate new scaffolds. It touches different areas in terms of synthesizing scaffolds, but also biocatalysis and screening these molecules for their bioactivity. I get to learn a lot of different things with this project. This is something that Mo suggested and we worked out together for me. Mo says we have to follow the science, but then he gives us a lot of freedom and autonomy to take it where we want to go. We get to highlight our interests and our vision.
How do you stay motivated when things get tough, particularly during the pandemic?
I think it has to do with knowing myself. I get really attached and invested in my projects. It’s challenging. But I just really love being a grad student and the ride that we’re on. In some ways this pandemic has given me more time to reflect. I would say that I feel really blessed I’m in a lab where I can talk to older grad students and ask them for advice. For example, one of my labmates once told me that you have to keep selling your project to yourself over and over. I guess the reason why I am so optimistic is because I am good at that.
Any plans for what you’ll do once you earn your Ph.D.?
My interests definitely lie in teaching. To be honest, last year being a preceptor was very difficult because I had so much autonomy and I struggled with perfectionism. I’ve never had a teacher who looks like me, and here I was leading these students in “Gen Chem.” I had imposter’s syndrome as a teacher. But I just still have this passion for teaching and I really enjoyed seeing my students understand the concepts, and seeing them get it.
Do you have any advice on how to maximize the time at Princeton?
I feel like being self-aware is really important to maximizing your time. I consider myself a very curious person so I enjoy taking advantage of the many opportunities and resources that Princeton offers as a chemistry department, university, and town. Even though it is tough to do these days, bonding with colleagues goes a long way. For the most part, now I just realize how blessed I am to be in this position. Making discoveries, learning about myself, having a job during a pandemic – especially during a time like this when people are losing their jobs. You just don’t want to take anything for granted. It will go by fast.