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Aaron Johnson – Double the motivation

It takes a special type of person to go into Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s MD/PhD program. You not only need to be hardworking, focused and driven, but also accepting of long-term goals, as the program takes seven years to complete.

It was everything Aaron Johnson was looking for.

“All six medical schools in Ontario offer the program, but there aren’t a lot of spots available,” Johnson said. “I always wanted to go to medical school and get my PhD, so when I found out I had the opportunity to do what is essentially my dream education, I couldn’t say no.”

Johnson was born and raised in London, Ontario and completed his BMSc degree last year at Western University, specializing in Biochemistry of Infection and Immunity — a joint program between Microbiology and Biochemistry.

He was one of only two students accepted into the MD/PhD program this year, and is currently working on the three-year PhD portion of the program. Following that, he will complete the four-year medical school portion.

“A medical degree seems like the ultimate application of science, but I also really like the idea of being on the cutting-edge of knowledge and research,” he said. “This program offers double the motivation, because when you’re treating patients you’re seeing the reason behind why you’re doing the research.”

The MD/PhD program will help prepare Johnson for a career as a clinician-scientist, where he would split his time between seeing patients and running a research lab.

Johnson is currently working on HIV research in Dr. Jimmy Dikeakos’ lab, where he also completed his fourth-year project. He said he loves working in this lab specifically, as Dr. Dikeakos is very supportive and the environment is a lot of fun.

Dr. Dikeakos’ lab’s research focuses on a protein encoded by the virus called Nef, which stands for “negative factor". Johnson explained this protein allows HIV to evade the immune system in the body, allowing the virus to replicate and spread. He is currently looking at how Nef’s functions differ between different sub-types of HIV.

“Viruses have always amazed me,” he said, with a laugh, adding that his girlfriend often teases him about how excited he gets when he talks about them. “They’re basically just these balls of protein that go into cells and wreak havoc everywhere.”

“It seems like biochemistry at its finest,” he added.

When he’s not working in the lab, Johnson is involved in the Let’s Talk Science initiative, which gives him the opportunity to teach a variety of science topics to young students at an elementary school in Byron, Ontario. He also finds time to relax by taking up hobbies like gardening on his uncle’s farm.

“I think it’s important to fill your time with things that are different from what you’re doing in the lab,” he said. “Gardening, for example, gives you instant gratification when things grow. It’s a nice contrast between my other long-term projects.”