Longtime NMSU research program director retires, leaves lasting impact on students

Throughout the last two decades, Michael Johnson has made it his mission to educate and empower underrepresented students in biomedical research as the director of the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program at New Mexico State University.

“He has been an incredible director, an incredible leader, and a really great role model,” said MARC Program Coordinator Mary Jo Ruthven. “He has always been incredibly student focused, and that’s important. That students know there’s someone they can look up to that has their goals as a central focus.”

The MARC program, which was first funded at NMSU in 1977, is an undergraduate training program from the National Institutes of Health intended to diversify the pool of biomedical researchers by preparing underrepresented students for completion of research-focused Ph.D., M.D./Ph.D., or other combined Ph.D. and professional degrees.

Johnson, a Regents Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry will retire from NMSU on July 1, after teaching at NMSU for nearly 30 years.

Since his appointment as the director of the MARC program in 1997, it has brought in more than $15 million to NMSU and trained more than 300 students. During that time, the program has also expanded to provide more activities for students to supplement their research training.

“We’ve expanded the program from simply just supporting research to having various classroom activities that students can participate in. We’ve established a research seminar series for the students and we now have a wide variety of training components in professional development topics such as applying to graduate schools and interviewing,” said Johnson.

While Johnson says he is proud of these accomplishments, the passion behind directing the program has always been about playing an active role in nurturing student growth.

“Being the MARC program director has been the highlight of my academic career at NMSU,” said Johnson. “It has truly been a wonderful experience to be able to help and to watch students go out and have incredible careers and do amazing things.”

NMSU alumnus Bobby Brooke Herrera, chief scientific officer and cofounder of E25 Bio, credits much of his current success to the opportunities provided by the MARC program and the guidance of his mentors, including Johnson.

“The MARC Program was incremental in my academic and professional career and I don’t think I would be where I am today had it not been for MARC,” said Herrera. “Dr. Johnson is an amazing mentor, which I think has had an impact on my life, but also other individuals’ lives that I am close to and who were in the MARC [program].

“So, he not only becomes a professor, academic, professional figure, but in many ways, he also becomes a friend. And in this case, for me, a father figure.”

For another NMSU alumnus, Eduardo Davila, the impact of the MARC program and the mentorship from Johnson has extended well beyond his collegiate years.

“It was through his continued guidance and mentorship, even beyond my time at NMSU, that really contributed to molding my service to the underrepresented community,” said Davila, now the Amy Davis Chair of Basic Immunology Research and professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Colorado.

Davila said it was Johnson’s mentorship that was instrumental in helping him lead an NIH Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and that Johnson served as a great role model to him.

“It’s hard to find people that care for the sake of caring, and for no other reason, and [Johnson] is one of those people. He just really wants to see people accomplish the best, do their best and succeed, with no expectation of repayment,” said Davila.

Following Johnson’s retirement from NMSU, the MARC program is now be under the directorship of two current MARC mentors, Regents Professor Graciela A. Unguez from the Department of Biology and Assistant Professor Ivette Guzman from the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

Unguez and Guzman, who have been mentors in the program for 17 and three years respectively, said they are grateful for the opportunity to have worked with Johnson as mentors in the program, and are excited to continue building on the decades of success from Johnson and his predecessors.

As the program moves forward, the new directors want to continue expanding the program by bringing in more students and broadening the scope of research opportunities.

“We aim to increase our presence in courses across campus that have a biomedical application or research component to educate students that this program does not require research at the bench or ‘wet lab,'” said Unguez. “We will also reach out to more faculty whose research focus fits within the biomedical mission of the NIH – ranging from public health and social sciences to molecular chemistry using microbes, plants or animals.”

Unguez and Guzman will see the program through the end of its current funding cycle in May 2022, at which point the program directors will apply for the National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (U-RISE) Program. The U-RISE program follows the same mission of the MARC program but does not require that the trainees be in the honors college.

Johnson said he looks forward to seeing the future of the program continue to flourish under the directorship of Unguez and Guzman.

Author: Kaitlin Englund – NMSU


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