Seminars on Science
Johanna Ohlmeyer

Dr. Johanna T. Ohlmeyer, was born in Arequipa, Peru. Her interest in science was sparked and nurtured at an early age by her parents. As one of 8 siblings, she spent a lot of time exploring the countryside in search of bugs and other novel creatures, and reading science encyclopedias. After graduating from high school she decided to enroll in medical school where she greatly enjoyed the classes, especially basic science such as biochemistry, histology and physiology. When she came to the United States to finish her Bachelors degree at Rice University in Houston, she took many science courses including Paleontology and Archeology. “I wanted to explore different fields of science before I choose my area of concentration. I choose as my major Biology/Biochemistry, in part because of my experience in medical school, although I acquired a strong interest in Chemistry and Mathematics at Rice.”

Dr. Englbrecht stands outside the American Museum of Natural History.
Dr. Ohlmeyer on top of Mismi Volcano in Peru. ©AMNH

Another important factor in Johanna’s decision to concentrate on Biology/Biochemistry was her genetics professor, Kate Beckingham. She is an inspiring person, whom Johanna admires very much. “Dr. Beckingham introduced me to Drosophila genetics, her classes were great and her research projects were very interesting”. Dr. Ohlmeyer joined her laboratory and did work-study during her undergraduate school years. “My experience at Kate’s lab was important for my development as a scientist because I not only participated in a group effort to understand a specific biological process but also I learned a lot about how to carry out scientific experiments. My lab mates where interesting, very supportive and shared their knowledge with me openly. I found genetics fascinating and at the same time challenging”. Johanna’s interest in science in general prompted her to work as a researcher at the University of Texas Medical School during summer vacations. These research projects were clinically oriented, mainly in the area of Neurobiology.

After graduating from college, Dr Ohlmeyer went to graduate school at Boston University and explored other areas of biological research such as Pharmacology and Neurobiology. After a couple of years working in this area she decided to go back to genetics so she moved to New York and obtained her doctoral degree in developmental genetics at the Biological Sciences Department at Columbia University. There were several reasons for this decision; first, the processes addressed by developmental biology are central to understanding morphogenesis (the development and organization of body shape). Specifically how gene expression is regulated in a temporal and spatial manner in order to guide morphogenesis. Second, genetics has used the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster as model animal for a long time to study of biological processes. Its reproduction cycle is short compared to other animals, we understand the genetics very well, and the results obtained from experiments are in the context of a whole organism. Third, this discipline brings together several areas of biology such as genetics, cell biology, biochemistry, evolution and molecular biology. By addressing a problem from different perspectives and obtaining complementary and consistent results, the researcher can be confident of the validity of the data and of the hypotheses and models one creates.

Dr. Englbrecht in her submersible in Lake König, Germany. This device facilitated her research dives. ©Claudia Englbrecht
Johanna in her hometown, Arequipa, Peru, with the Basílica Catedral behind her. ©AMNH

Graduate school was a very productive time for Johanna; she published several research papers on the role of the protein called Hedgehog during Drosophila melanogaster development. The Hedgehog protein is an inducer; it influences the expression of other proteins that play a crucial role in directing development in several organisms. The Hedgehog signaling pathway is a very intricate and elegant system to use for the study of genetics. It has been conserved across several species such as flies, fish, worms, and humans. Currently there is plethora of publications showing that Hedgehog is involved in biological processes as diverse as the patterning of the vertebrate brain and appendages to its involvement in stem cell biology and differentiation. “Graduate school at Columbia was very rewarding for me and I am grateful to my advisor, Dr. Dan Kalderon, because he took the time to discuss science with me as a colleague.  He listened to my ideas, and encouraged me to use my creativity and independence in research. I consider these aspects of developing as a scientist essential”.

After Dr. Ohlmeyer received her doctoral degree, she continued investigating pathways in early development in the laboratory of Dr. Trudi Schupbach at Princeton University. The general aim of patterning is to understand how one spherical cell, the egg, becomes an embryo and how during this process the main body axes (anterior/posterior/ventral/dorsal) are established and maintained. This is a fascinating topic of research but not completely understood. During her postdoctoral work at Princeton University, Johanna focused on cell cycle regulation. This area of research is very exciting not only because of its’ beauty and intricacy, but it also has implications for understanding cancer biology.  “Investigating a biological process is like being a detective, finding out how nature works and revealing its secrets.  Creating hypotheses and models for biological processes and designing experiments to test them is very exciting and rewarding: this compensates for the times when meticulous, detailed and sometimes painstakingly work is required. It is very uplifting when you get a result that increases your understanding and opens up new areas for investigation”.

Even though Johanna has been immersed in basic research at the bench, she always felt that she should be more involved in the training of the new generation of biologists. Teaching has been an integral part of graduate school and informally during her postdoctoral training. “The fact that I have spent a lot of time designing and developing experiments, interpreting and critically discussing the data in order to test a hypothesis has provided me with a firm understanding of how science can help us to make sense of the world. I would like to share my expertise and drive for scientific research with young people who may become interested in science for it’s own sake, or who may go on to become scientists and make discoveries of their own. My hope is that I will be able to spark interest in the study of science by showing young minds the wonder and beauty that there is in Nature."

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