An Internship Plus a Second Job Plus a Research Fellowship Makes for a Busy Summer


Christopher Johansen

Christopher Johansen Internship was just the beginning of exploring the research side of science


By Mitchell Zimmer

During his third year at Western, Christopher Johansen came to a crossroads in deciding what career path to take. “I was trolling, I had no idea” he says. “I think I’ve always been looking to the future and always considering what options were there. It seems very clear these days that you either do grad studies or medicine. That’s what it seems at least.” He then adds, “I was thinking about them but I didn’t know how to make that decision. That’s why I decided to take the internship, not only to buy a little time, but to really expose myself to one side of research.”

Johansen accepted an internship with Agriculture Canada. “I was definitely trying it on for size. I took a position in a microbiology lab and I’ve been studying biochemistry and taking genetics as my elective courses so I thought I’d try out the work place and see what these labs are like and so I kind of stumbled on the fact that I really love research and I really love being in the lab so. It was great to figure that out.” There was also the bonus of having the opportunity of working on a variety of projects. “It was a very big lab with a lot of collaborating scientists and so we had all kinds of projects going on,” says Johansen. “One of them, the biggest one that lasted the entire summer, they called microplots which was testing the effects of micronutrients on killing potato scab to try and make potatoes more profitable. In the back of Agriculture Canada there were these huge fields with these individual tiles, about 1200 of them in which we could grow single potatoes and test different types of soil and different types of treatment to try and kill this disease.”

During that time, Johansen was able to develop contacts with other laboratories at Agriculture Canada which led to an additional employment opportunity. “I worked the internship between May until October. In October, I was approached by a T.A. who was a graduate student in another lab. He said that their work load was increasing and that they could really use a student.” On that advice, Johansen went for an interview, “and so the next thing that I knew I was working this second lab part-time. So I’d work from eight to four at the Internship and then at four o’clock I’d go across the way and work until eight o’clock at night in that second lab.” After four months, Johansen was approached by the supervisor of this lab, Dr. Krzysztof Szczglowski, to apply for the Ontario Genomics Institute (OGI) Summer Research Fellowship Program, “it was a very smooth transition” he recalls. “It was nice in the sense that I got to keep doing the work that I was doing in that lab, but I was given a more specialized project.”

Johansen’s OGI project worked with a technology called Zinc-finger nucleases. “The zinc finger motifs are a sequence of amino acids in many proteins in our body and they recognize three base pairs of our DNA” says Johansen. “What we essentially do is take a few of these zinc finger motifs and we attach them in tandem so that they recognize a very specific sequence in the DNA. At the end of these four motifs, we attach an endonuclease which will cut the DNA.” The cut invokes natural repair mechanisms in the cell which tries and fix this break but they’re extremely prone to error. In this way, mutants are created in a specific gene which are then used to figure out the gene’s function by seeing what happens to the plant. Dr. Szczglowski’s group had worked on a gene that was similar to another plant hormone receptor that was of great importance. “So they said let’s try and knock out this second gene and see what the result is.” It was Johansen’s project to establish this technology in the lab and try designing zinc fingered nucleases for use in later projects.

Now that he’s back, Johansen is getting use to campus life again. “Oddly enough I actually don’t have any laboratory courses now in fourth year. I only have my fourth year’s honours project. I can’t believe how comfortable I am in the lab, I sit in lectures craving to get back to the lab after class.” The combination of his internship experience along with the OGI Fellowship has given Johansen some food for thought regarding his career plans. “I think I’m leaning much more towards graduate studies, that’s the way the scholarships and internship have groomed me…. Had I not done the internship I never would have met Krzysztof and I never would have started in that direction, it was a nice little package I guess.”