Pamela Johnson

Headshot of Pamela Johnson


Department: Bioengineering Program

Describe your research/creative scholarship in a few sentences that we can all understand: Our research is at the intersection of drug delivery, tissue engineering, and material science. We are looking at regenerating tissue that has been damaged from osteoarthritis in the jaw joint, which is also known as the temporomandibular joint. Interestingly, women who have gone through menopause are about 3-6 times more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis, which indicates the lack of estrogen may be contributing to the degeneration of natural tissue lining the joint. We can rebuild this tissue through the use polymers to create fibers in a fabric-like tissue scaffold. The fibers in this scaffold have medication embedded within them that help cells grow, divide, and produce new tissue as the scaffold degrades. Specifically, the medication we are embedding in the fibers signals to estrogen receptors in the native tissue and promotes tissue regeneration.

Q: How did you first get interested in doing research or creative work?

A: I was very fortunate to start research as an undergraduate student both in a lab researching drug delivery and in a medical device development program with clinicians and faculty as advisors. These experiences were pivotal to my decision to pursue a graduate degree and the reason why I am passionate about including undergraduates in the lab to also allow them to also have this research experience. 


Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?

A: Research allows hands on learning that often both builds on concepts learned in class and introduces new niche science that is beyond the scope of typical courses. Additionally, research is an avenue through which students hone skills in critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and teamwork. In our lab, we explore areas of interface interactions when creating emulsions- as seen in salad dressing and hand creams- and how they react in electric and magnetic fields through an electrospinning process. 


Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research or creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?

A: For me one of the most exciting aspects of research is the novelty of new discovery and the potential to add knowledge to what is currently known in the field. I also genuinely enjoy working with undergraduate students. It is incredibly rewarding when students are able to start hypothesizing and interpreting data both from lab experiments and from literature. I sometimes get just as excited as they do when they finally figure out why an experiment went a certain way based on understanding and when they begin to piece together the governing science principals that are dictating results.


Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?

A: There is a learning curve and you need to be resilient; remember that everyone started off new to the field and the longer you stick with it, the more you will start to understand. Understanding of the research can also be bolstered by reading related published papers, especially those published by faculty and students in your lab. Ask lots of questions and try to understand the rational for each study and how it contributes to the overall goal of the project. Finally, find a mentor in the field that you can have open communication with and don’t hesitate to reach out and ask them questions.


Q: For many students, doing research or a larger creative project is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems.  Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected?  Or about any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?

A: Research can be about as equally likely to result in the expected as the unexpected. I absolutely love this! When you conduct research, the whole point is to discover or determine something that is not known. This means that you could literally be the first person to come to the conclusion that you do based on data that you collected. Many great discoveries have been made through an unexpected outcome of an experiment. The important aspect to remember is to try to hypothesize why the experiment varied from your initial hypothesis.


Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?

A: Most of time outside of work this year has been spent on my involvement with the Student Senate and KU’s Society for Biomaterials.