Alumnus Profile: Donald Johnson, PhD (‘04)

Chinquapin molded me in a lot of ways to push myself past what I considered my intellectual capacity. The school provided the tools necessary for facing adversity and constantly challenged me intellectually.

I am a cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma on January 6th 1993, when I was eight years old. My mom pulled me out of my local public school, Stovall Elementary (now Stovall Academy) in Inwood Forest [near Houston’s Acres Homes]. Mom had just retired from HISD as a teacher and administrator. She had been in education for over 30 years.  

MD Anderson suggested amputating my leg and gave me six months to live. My family did not want to let one opinion decide my fate. Instead, Mom took me to numerous doctors. Eventually, I reached the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, where I was treated. I fought two more occurrences before finally moving into remission. Once I was well enough, Mom and I moved from Inwood Forest to Elkins Lake in Huntsville, TX. 

Elkins Lake is an upper middle class community located across from the Sam Houston statue. My mother bought land in the community and built her dream home. Our home backed up the Sam Houston State Park, where I could watch wildlife cross into our backyard and go hiking through the woods. It seemed like a nice place, but that was only true if you were white. 

Mom had decided to make a ‘splash’ in Huntsville, as we were the first black family to own land, let alone own a home in this neighborhood. Mom, who grew up in rural Louisiana, knew that I’d be a target in public school, so she decided to homeschool me instead. It was not your traditional homeschool experience: I pulled weeds, cut down trees, landscaped, installed toilets, learned how to install plugs and switches. A traditional K-12 education stopped for me in 5th grade. My mom would buy books, but yard work and hard labor was my education. 

One day, I found a folder labeled “Chinquapin” in my mother’s old files. I did not think anything of it. Mom and I had just had an argument about my learning. I was supposed to be going into the 9th grade. I wanted to go to school, but she would not have it. Finally, after some choice words, she threw down a pamphlet about Chinquapin in front of me. When she was still working for HISD, she’d helped students apply to Chinquapin. The next day, we set out for a drive to the school. We met with Bill Heinzerling. Unfortunately, I missed the application deadline. Bill encouraged me to apply the following year, which I did.

I remember being interviewed by Kathy Heinzerling. I knew I’d not performed well in the testing, so I did not expect to be called back for the Summer Session. However, they somehow looked past my scores and invited me out.  

The Summer Session is still the most difficult academic experience in my life. I cried the first night, as I was overwhelmed by the course material. I felt like I didn’t belong at Chinquapin. I decided to quit and go home. I called my mom and asked her to come get me. [Former Chinquapin teacher] Dave Bartholome was in the office. Earlier, my mom had spoken with Bill and he knew I was struggling. She told me, “Finish the week. You fought cancer; you can fight this.” Dave must have heard the call. He didn’t say anything to me. He just smiled and asked if I needed anything. 

I finished the week. Bill requested my grades, so mom handed my grades handwritten by pencil on a 3 x 5 index card to him. She wrote them down in the car outside the administrative offices at Chinquapin. I thought I would never get an acceptance letter from Chinquapin. I was not meant to be there. Even though my mother was a teacher, I’d come from a “well-off” family. I was this upper middle class kid, who should’ve been in the 6th grade, but I was applying for the 10th grade. Mom came home with the mail, containing my letter from Chinquapin. I opened it, knowing it would be a no. It wasn’t. I’d been accepted to The Chinquapin School. Rather than being excited I was terrified. What had I done to deserve this? Was this a mistake? I failed academically during the Summer Session. What did the teachers see in me? I approached my mother and told her the news. She was excited. I told her I’d fail if I went. She then said, “never decide your future.” She told me to face my fears and go to Chinquapin. They accepted me for a reason. 

On my first day at Chinquapin, I was told I’d be part of the 9th grade class. I sat with my classmates, went through classes, and came out sure that this would be a tough four years. A teacher who had worked with me during the Summer Session told me that he didn’t expect me to make it through the semester. This was my affirmation. I encouraged myself to take it one week at a time. I spent every day learning what I should have known while keeping up with the stuff I was being taught in class. I threw myself into the challenge of making it through that year. 

The following years became easier for me. I woke up every morning, excited to go running. It was my ritual to run without shoes, so I could feel the wet, sometimes freshly cut grass. I climbed the GPA scales to be on the honors list every quarter. I dealt with my share of bullies and teachers who just did not like me. I spent a summer in the Colorado Rockies with Outward Bound, scaling 14,000-foot tall mountains and learning more about myself and my capacity to succeed. One summer, I traveled to Spain, improving on my Spanish skills, and even bringing back a sword from Toledo for Mr. Lohan. In my last year, I worked with Dave [Bartholome] as my college advisor because he’d seen me at my lowest point, and he provided me comfort through the simplest gestures. He also understood me more than a lot of the other teachers at Chinquapin. 

Up until the day I graduated from Chinquapin, Bill had never said directly to me how he felt. There was a paragraph written on my report card every quarter, but I did not take as direct feedback. Mom would always told me about her conversations with Bill. The day I accepted my diploma, Bill whispered into my ear, “We are all very proud of you.” I worked those four years, obtaining awards, getting on the honors list, facing some really big fears and he was quietly cheering me on. 

I went on to graduate with honors and distinction from Occidental College in 2008 with a BA in Chemistry. I then spent two years at the National Institutes of Health as a research fellow. Working for Julie Segre (National Human Genome Research Institute) and George Patterson (National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering), I worked on evolving fluorescent proteins for the application of super resolution microscopy. I went on to University of California, San Diego, where I earned an MS and PhD in Biochemistry. My research advisors were Mark Ellisman (lead advisor) and Susan Taylor. 

I chose to dedicate myself to my craft as a scientist, building teams and starting companies, even starting a consultancy to help others in writing research grants. I tend to focus on cancer because of my personal history. Currently, I work for Bristol Myers Squibb in the drug product development organization, building an understanding of the data obtained in clinical trials, while also solving issues related to targeted delivery of novel drug products.  

Chinquapin molded me in a lot of ways to push myself past what I considered my intellectual capacity. The school provided the tools necessary for facing adversity and constantly challenging myself intellectually. When I was in the Rockies that summer for Outward Bound, I ended up doing a three day solo hike. I choose to not eat anything for those three days, drinking water from the stream and laying on a rock. It really made me digest my life, and face the hard questions about myself I never had time to face. Every time I end up hiking in Colorado, I look for that rock in the woods and lay on it for three days – choosing to limit myself to the water from the streams. 


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