- Lisa Jevens
Researching cancer at the NIH is just the beginning for Mary Washington grad
Bailey Johnson’s first job out of college was — and is — a clinical cancer researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. And that’s just her jumping off point. This amazing young graduate of the University of Mary Washington is set to launch an international career of her own design.
A fluent Mandarin speaker, Johnson won a prestigious scholarship to a master’s program called Schwarzman Scholars. Beginning in June, she will study global affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing. There she plans to fuse her research acumen with cross-cultural expertise.
“My future work will include shaping a research agenda between China and the United States, stimulating the generation, translation and dissemination of valuable knowledge,” she said. That might happen before or after someday going to medical school, she adds.
You could say that Johnson is the kind of student who embodies what a liberal arts education is all about — times ten. The Columbus, Ohio, native graduated early from the University of Mary Washington in December 2020 with two seemingly unrelated degrees — biology and Chinese cultural studies. Her life’s goal is to blend the two.
How exactly did UMW prepare a 22-year-old to articulate and execute this kind of detailed vision for her life and career? Quite simply, it made good on its mission of providing hands-on learning experiences, real-world research opportunities, community engagement and faculty encouragement of students to follow their passions.
“I feel like I had more opportunities at UMW, especially because of the small class size,” Johnson said. (UMW has a 13-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio.) “Just being able to form those relationships with my professors made a big difference. I made a point freshman year to talk to every professor. At UMW there are a lot of opportunities to build connections, and they are still serving me to this day.”
Johnson said her professors stoked her interest in the sciences and encouraged her to pursue research opportunities. Those relationships — plus excellent coursework — positioned her to land a summer internship at the NIH. She worked for the same doctor who eventually hired her after graduation to study how cancer metastasizes to secondary organs.
“After my internship at NIH, I became more research driven,” she said. “I just loved it so much.”
During college, Johnson joined the Student Government Association, the African Student Union and the Asian Student Association. She was a resident assistant for four years, competed in track and field as a first-year student and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. She also founded a STEM mentoring program for children in underserved communities.
When it came time for Johnson’s senior research project, she did three. One was on the effects of melatonin on the reproductive outcomes of zebrafish (widely used in science for their genetic similarity to humans). Another was on the political implications of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multibillion-dollar infrastructure plan that will connect East Asia to Europe. The third studied a chemical called hyperforin, often used as an antidepressant in traditional Chinese medicine.
When Johnson leaves for China this summer, it will not be her first visit. She did a study abroad program in Xian during college, where she studied Chinese medicine.
“It was my dream to return to China and advance my education,” she said. “I want to have a global impact in communities around the world, not just my own.”
Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on January 19, 2022.