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Scholarship Winner | Rebecca Johnson

Family connections inspired fourth-year medical student Rebecca Johnson to work in a laboratory exploring the role of genetic variability in autism and related disorders. (Photo: Richard Anderson)

Career-defining detours

Intrigued for years by emergency medicine, fourth-year medical student Rebecca Johnson wasn’t aiming for a career in pathology, but, in retrospect, it seems that’s where all roads led.

When Johnson was in elementary school, her father, Stephen, was a volunteer firefighter and a member of the scuba rescue team in Blaine, Minnesota. “He shared his passion for emergency medicine with me, and when I reached high school, I began taking first-responder classes,” she says.

Johnson was soon participating in local and national first-responder competitions and later became a CPR instructor and completed EMT training.

Those experiences fueled her passion for helping others—nothing new for Johnson. She and her sister Jennifer had always looked after their younger sister, Karen, who has autism. “[Karen’s autism] affected the way we interacted with friends and family,” Johnson remembers. “My sister and I had to learn a lot very young.”

Connecting pathology to patient care

After finishing her undergraduate degree in biology at the College of St. Benedict, Johnson interned and then worked for a small company that specialized in DNA and RNA purification technology. “It was a great experience, and I was able to develop my skills as a laboratory scientist, but I felt disconnected from patient care,” she says.

Becoming a doctor—as she had planned for years—seemed like the best way for Johnson to add that important element. Medical School also offered her opportunities to learn more about Karen’s disease, and she took a year off to lead a University of Minnesota research project focused on the role of genetic variability in autism and other developmental disorders.

“I wanted to add to the collective knowledge about the biology of this disorder with the hope that it would lead to improved diagnosis and treatment,” she says.

The experience taught Johnson a lot about the role genetic disruptions play in many diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. “I hope to apply that knowledge to future research projects and eventually to my clinical practice,” says Johnson, who will start a pathology residency next year.

“I realized that what energized me most was the molecular and cellular pathology underlying human disease,” she says. “I believe that a thorough understanding of the molecular mechanisms behind disease processes will allow physicians to provide better care for their patients.”

A like-minded benefactor

Martin Segal, M.D.

Martin Segal, M.D., a retired pathologist and a graduate of the Medical School’s Class of 1944, shares that view, so it’s fitting that Johnson is a two-time recipient of the Martin A. Segal Family Endowed Scholarship, which supports students with an interest in pathology.

“It means a lot,” Johnson says of the scholarship, adding that she views it as a validation of her career choice. “It makes me feel like I’m supported by my community. It feels good to know that there is someone out there thinking about me and my education.”

Segal, who worked his way through medical school by playing the saxophone and clarinet, has fond memories of his time at the University. “There was a group of us that would walk to school over the old, shaky Washington Avenue Bridge,” he recalls, adding that the bridge also carried large yellow rail cars, always packed with students.

“Arts college tuition when I started was approximately $14.50 per quarter, and Medical School tuition was approximately $90, which was still a lot of money in those days but was doable for me by working part time playing in a dance band, commuting from my parents’ home in south Minneapolis, and with a little help from family,” Segal says.

Like many current medical students, Johnson will graduate with six-figure debt. “It’s very stressful,” she says. “The number gets bigger and bigger every year.” Fortunately, she is quick to point out, scholarships have helped to reduce the burden.

Segal says that establishing a scholarship fund at the University was important to him and his late wife, Gloria Segal, a Minnesota state legislator for many years. “I saw the need for it, especially with the tuition and the tremendous debt that the medical students are building up,” he says.

“I owe everything I have and everything I made as a hospital pathologist to my training at the University of Minnesota,” he says, proudly mentioning that all three of his children attended the University as well. “My tuition paid only a part of my training. The taxpayers of Minnesota contributed most of the cost. I am indebted to the University and the citizens of Minnesota.”

Segal believes that scholarship support is important to individual students, but also for medical education generally. “I’m afraid [medical school costs] will leave a gap and that a lot of wonderful physicians will not be able to realize their dream,” he says.

Johnson, for one, feels fortunate to have that chance. “I am very grateful to the Segal family for continuing to support me and others in pathology,” she says. “I hope to repay them some day by treating their friends and family.”

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