Q&A with graduate student Stephanie Johnson

Stephanie Johnson is leading research at WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Health aimed at exploring how policies at large institutions and health care facilities contribute to the spread of infectious diseases. Stephanie is working toward a doctorate in Biomedical Sciences – Immunology and Infectious Diseases, a research-intensive program designed to train students in immunology, host-pathogen interactions, and population biology of bacterial, parasitic, and viral infectious diseases in animals and humans.

She is mentored by associate professor Dr. Eric Lofgren, an infectious disease epidemiologist whose research focuses on the use of mathematical and computational models of disease transmission, particularly the transmission of antimicrobial-resistant infections within and outside health care settings, as well as emerging infectious diseases. 

Stephanie recently took some time to answer questions about her research and experiences at WSU.

What are you researching at WSU?

My lab is an infectious disease epidemiology lab that primarily uses models to study disease transmission. Due to COVID, my research is a smorgasbord of projects that all focus on how institutional or occupational policies drive contact rates, which drive infectious disease acquisition. If you don’t have contact with sick people, you don’t get sick! It’s a simple concept, but communities and individuals both do things that drive contact and lead to risk of infection. I’m particularly interested in individual contact risks by occupation and its community impact. My projects are looking at contact rates for 1) WSU employees 2) ICU staff 3) Veterinary Teaching Hospital health care workers and fourth-year students.

How has your mentor helped you?

Dr. Eric Lofgren has been great at helping me figure out how to stand up for what I need and creating opportunities for me to do what I want. His wheelhouse is more computational and mathematical modeling, so my idea of wanting a fieldwork component was not in his usual project ideas, but we were able to create a project that would have been modeling and fieldwork in pediatric areas of a hospital. Then COVID hit and that idea got scrapped. We were able to create my current research agenda, which again has both modeling and fieldwork components. This allowed me to lead, manage, and field a study in a hospital – our very own Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Why did you decide to complete your doctorate at WSU?

I was working in the zoonotic diseases unit of a state health department and wanted to continue advancing my interest in zoonotic diseases beyond where my Master of Public Health could take me. When researching schools, I came across the Rabies Free Africa program on social media, which became a deep dive into the Allen Center and the epidemiology professors here. When I came here for Recruitment Weekend, I enjoyed the way I was treated as a potential colleague, not as a student. I also really enjoyed the rotations my first year that exposed me to more labs and work than if I had just been directly admitted. The rotations really helped me find the best fit for my PhD, both in terms of work and in terms of PI personality and expectations.

What has been your favorite thing about WSU?

At WSU proper? The WSU CrossFit Program. While it taxes -and sometimes breaks- my body, I know my mental health would be a lot worse if I didn’t have a physical activity outlet with a good community and great coaches.

Pullman in general? The hiking and the possibility of seeing moose in the wild! I’ve seen three moose around here so far – one in Pullman and two while hiking Kamiak Butte!

WSU Community? My cohort and friends here. My cohort got together during rotations for dinners, and then that progressed to Dungeons and Dragons during the pandemic. I also enjoy Wednesday night soccer during summer and fall with CVMGSA and enjoying meeting up with friends either for coffee or for a meal. The connection between graduate students is something really special, because they know the crucible that grad school is and can really help you figure out next steps if you get stuck, something breaks or you are having issues with your PI or other labmates.

What about WSU has surprised you the most?

The hills! Some of them really sneak up on you. My advice for people is to give your body time to adjust if you’re not used to the elevation.

As I’ve lived here a while, it’s been fascinating to learn about how the different departments are run and are so distinct, even within College of Veterinary Medicine! Immunology and Infectious Diseases, the School of Molecular Biosciences, and Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience all have different requirements and guidelines about prelims, classes, and how you get funded.

What do you hope to do after graduate school?  

I hope to find a job that offers decent health care, good retirement benefits, and a livable wage! I don’t want to teach, but whether I go into government or industry is all up in the air right now.