Rachel A. Johnston is a 2010 Gilliam Fellow.
When Rachel A. Johnston was 10 years old, a friend gave her some guppies. Little did she know that gift would spark an interest in fish breeding that would blossom into a fascination with genetics.
Not content simply to watch the fish swim, Johnston bred the guppies. “I just took it to the next level and really got interested,” she says. Johnston read all she could about guppy breeding and started selecting fish with traits she liked, such as a bright green color and big tail fins. Breeding requires that male and female fish be housed in separate tanks, and it wasn't long before her hobby began to have quite a presence in her home. “My bedroom ended up with 15 fish tanks, which my mom wasn’t too happy about,” she says. “The room smelled kind of fishy, but she still supported me.”
Johnston recalls sending a letter to a well-respected guppy breeder who had written a book on the subject. He responded by encouraging her budding interest—and even sent along some of his own prized fish. “He sent me a letter back saying, ‘You’re the youngest enthusiast I’ve ever met,’” Johnston says.
Now Johnston, 21, is taking her interest in genetics to the next level by pursuing a doctoral degree in population genetics. She says she's a curious person by nature—a trait that many scientists seem to share. "What I love about research is the ability to explore the unknown and answer questions that have never been answered before," she says.
Johnston’s father was a mining engineer whose job took the family from Colorado to Michigan, and eventually back west to Silver City, New Mexico. As a child, Johnston loved camping and the outdoors, and her parents encouraged her many biology-related hobbies. In addition to guppy breeding, Johnston enjoyed bird watching. “I would set up a tent in my backyard—so the birds couldn’t see me—and watch them fly around,” she says. “That experience opened my eyes to observing nature.” Her mother took her to the local Audubon Society meetings, where she was often the youngest person in the room.
When Johnston was in seventh grade, her parents went through a painful divorce, and her mother struggled to pay the bills. “It was difficult because she didn’t have a higher level education, so she was working multiple jobs,” Johnston says. “My mom didn’t want it to distract me from school, though, so I really put my energy into that.”
Johnston took advanced placement biology and volunteered for Amnesty International, the global organization that advocates for human rights. She continued to breed guppies until she left home to study biology at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces.
The skills she had honed as an amateur fish breeder—selecting for specific traits and understanding how to breed guppies in an organized, methodical way—helped her excel in college. In her sophomore year, Johnston did genetics research on the development of fruit fly eyes with NMSU professor Jennifer Curtiss. "When I began doing research in Dr. Curtiss's lab, I realized that research was what I wanted to do for a career,” she says.
She spent the summer after her junior year working in HHMI professor Utpal Banerjee’s lab at the University of California, Los Angeles through HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). She worked on a project examining the genetics of heart development in the fruit fly. The research involved creating crosses of flies and separating them based on their traits—similar to what she did with her guppies. “Except with flies, you only have eight hours instead of two weeks to separate them because flies mature so quickly,” she says. She learned to use RNA interference techniques to reduce the expression of specific genes and study their effects on heart development. If the gene knockdowns resulted in heart defects, those genes were likely required for heart development. Johnston was so excited that she continued the work when she returned to NMSU, sending Banerjee regular updates.
Outside of the lab, Johnston, who will graduate from NMSU in May, devotes much of her time to Rotaract, a service organization affiliated with Rotary International. Through the club, she developed a mentoring program at a domestic abuse shelter, where she and her fellow NMSU students visit and mentor children every other week.
She also worked with a women’s cooperative in Juarez, Mexico, that sells handsewn products at NMSU. Johnston and her fellow students travel the 50 miles from NMSU to Juarez to collect the goods, sell them at the school, and then deliver the proceeds from the sales to the women in person. “That way, we can meet the families we’re helping,” she says. “They take us into their homes and tell us about their lives, which is a really touching experience.”
Johnston is especially proud of the group’s fund-raising events. One event raised $4,000 to install water tanks and basic sanitation facilities in a village in Panama, and a second provided college scholarship money for students in Juarez who didn’t have enough to pay their first semester tuition.
In graduate school, Johnston hopes to pursue her interest in science while continuing to help others. “I think as a professor I’d be able to work with students and be a good mentor,” she says. “Challenges always come up, but as long you keep focused on your goals and work toward them, you can overcome any challenges that you might face.”