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Student's own cancer inspires life of research

Cade JohnsonLamar University junior Cade Johnson of Lumberton joined researchers at Children’s Hospital Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania to study cancer treatments this summer as his research project funded by the 2016 David J. Beck Fellowship at LU.

For Johnson, the research is personal— Johnson was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 11 years old. His fight against cancer and the care he received from Texas Children’s Hospital inspired Johnson to pursue medical studies and to join the research efforts for cancer treatments.

“It would be dream to find a cure for cancer that’s guaranteed to work with minimal side effects. That’s what they're researching at Children’s Hospital Philadelphia—a very specific, very targeted chemotherapy that works reliably with minimal side effects,” said Johnson.

Now 21, Johnson is a double major in biology and in exercise science and fitness management and a member of the Reaud Honors College. He plans to continue his education at medical school then work as a pediatric hematology oncologist in a major hospital.

Johnson with groupJohnson described his role in the cancer research as testing inhibitor drugs on cells then examining the cell contents to see if the drugs are working.

“I grew the cells, treated the cells, broke the cells open, harvested and separated the proteins, stuck the proteins on a membrane, then used chemical fluorescents to look at the proteins. Then I developed it on film,” said Johnson.

Johnson says that the experience was more challenging than he had envisioned, but he saw it as an opportunity to grow and master learning in a new environment. Once he began seeing the results of his effort, he felt his work become rewarding.

“I only had help at the beginning when they were training me. I would watch them do it once, then I’d help them do it, then I’d do it and they would watch me, then I was on my own,” he said.  “It was just so different. You either swim or sink.”

Working on researchThe research taught him more than just medical knowledge— it helped him to change his outlook on success.

“With the research, there was a lot of failure. You’d be doing three days worth of work to get results, and the results would be either what you don’t want them to be or not good enough. Then you have to go back and figure out where you went wrong in the entire past three workdays,” he said.

“Getting used to not just the details that could lead to failure, but also getting used to failure, was really hard but rewarding.”

Johnson says that having attended Lamar University gave him a unique advantage during his research.

“Having mentors and professors and knowing I could email them if I had a question about something was so helpful, especially if I couldn’t always ask someone in the lab. Just having people to contact and say how the summer is going, saying I could really use your advice for this or that— those close connections aren’t something you find at every university,” he said.

Cade Johnson at LUOutside of his formal education, Johnson stays involved on campus, especially with his fraternity chapter that he helped found at LU, Alpha Tau Omega (ATO), and as a Lamar Ambassador.

Johnson is one of two undergraduate recipients of the prestigious Beck Fellowship. The scholarship endowed by David J. Beck covers all expenses for one year of education at LU, including tuition, fees, books, and on-campus room and board, and provides up to $10,000 for a summer project.

Besides the Beck Fellowship, Johnson receives the university’s Mirabeau Scholarship, which provides support for eight full semesters of school. The scholarship is paused while he studies under the Beck Fellowship and will resume the following academic year. Johnson will graduate from Lamar University in May 2019.