Ryan T. Dosumu-Johnson almost settled into a career at RadioShack, but instead refocused his life on research.

Ryan T. Dosumu-Johnson liked learning—but not school or homework—and chose a job at RadioShack instead of college when he graduated from high school. Yet it was the manager of that store in San Diego who set him on the path to becoming a scientist and Gilliam fellow. The manager thought Dosumu-Johnson was so talented that he should apply to manage a new store in South America—confidence that prompted the young man to think deeply about his future.

“I thought, ‘Is this really something I want to do for the rest of my life? It’s easy and it’s safe, but—it’s not intellectually challenging,’” recalled Dosumu-Johnson, now 23.

So Dosumu-Johnson changed direction. He began taking classes at a community college in Orange County, California. He had always been interested in science—Dosumu-Johnson was one of those kids who disassembles the family’s TVs and toasters—but he also was a good communicator, so he planned to major in marketing and sales. That plan was derailed by a course in molecular biology that opened his eyes to science and human biology. “I fell in love with science. My younger sisters are more into the arts, but I don’t understand how they could want to study anything [but biology],” he said of his four sisters. “How could you not want to understand how humans and the world around us work?”

Dosumu-Johnson took several more biology courses at Orange Coast College, which honed his interest in genetics, but his first real step into research came when he was accepted into the Bridges to Baccalaureate Program at the University of California, Irvine. Through the Bridges program, which is designed to help community college students interested in pursuing a biomedical research career, Dosumu-Johnson discovered his interest in neuroscience. He spent a summer doing research to identify the differences in the spinal cord structures of domesticated chickens and pheasants and when those changes occur during development.

In 2006, Dosumu-Johnson transferred with honors to the University of California, Los Angeles to complete his undergraduate work. Soon after arriving at UCLA, he learned to combine his interest in neuroscience with genetics while working with Stephanie White, who researches the impact of social interactions on vocal learning in songbirds. Studying how songbirds learn their songs provides insight into how humans learn to communicate through speaking, and showed him the importance of interdisciplinary research, an interest he still has today.

Despite his comfort in the lab, Dosumu-Johnson initially felt isolated in his biology classes at UCLA. “I would often be one of a few minorities and often the only black student in my classes,” he said, and he became disheartened and considered another career. Luckily, he could turn to his older sister, Tara, who is in a Ph.D. program in medical anthropology at the University of Michigan and had a similar experience as the only minority student in her department. “I have since been inspired and committed to become a role model for other minority students in the sciences,” he said.

Being a role model also provides Dosumu-Johnson with an opportunity to polish a skill he prizes—the ability to communicate effectively. He has spoken at middle and high schools in the L.A. area to promote neuroscience and taught science classes at his younger sister’s 5th grade class in San Diego. In the lab, he mentored a research assistant from a minority group. “I know that at all levels, I am able to make one large but rather subtle impact,” he said. “Each student with whom I interact is provided with a new archetype of a scientist.”

In the summer of 2008, Dosumu-Johnson got to expand his research experiences as well, through HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). Working with HHMI investigator Cornelia Bargmann at the Rockefeller University, he used engineering techniques to study the smell response in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans.

“I was very impressed by Ryan,” Bargmann said. “His work in my lab was a complete shift from what he’d done before. More importantly, she said, he gained the confidence to work independently on his research. Bargmann relates an anecdote: The experiment that Dosumu-Johnson and Bargmann’s postdoc Dirk Albrecht were working on hit a snag while Albrecht was out of town at a scientific conference. Rather than waiting for Albrecht to help figure it out, Dosumu-Johnson “troubleshot the whole thing and basically had [it] solved by the time Dirk got back,” Bargmann said.

That work showed Dosumu-Johnson, now in his final year at UCLA, that he was ready to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. “I really want to do research, but at the end of the day I’d like my research to be directed at alleviating human suffering,” he said. Dosumu-Johnson said that the variety of fields he has studied, from ecology to neuroscience to engineering, will be an asset when he tackles problems as a physician-scientist. “The more you know about other subjects in science, the better able you are to approach any problem you want,” he said.

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Jim Keeley 301.215.8858