The neuroscience of chasing life

Bethel professor pushes forward with research and classes, even during chemotherapy treatments.

By Peyton Witzke | Royal Report

Professor Adam Johnson explains his theory on the human imagination to the nearest crowd of 50 people in Washington, D.C. His audience asks so many questions, all requiring lengthy answers. Fifteen minutes pass. More people crowd around his poster, listening before providing feedback and insight to his current schemas. A shiny pool of sweat forms on his forehead as he continues explaining his findings. No one is able to tell he is fighting for his life.

“He had no obligation to mentor me, but he did, and I thought that was really cool,” senior Sarah Jo Venditto said. “All that I know of neuroscience I attribute to him, because he helped me get to where I am now. He is such a trooper.”

Professor Adam Johnson stands in front of his eager students as he shares his love for psychology. Johnson is the only neuroscientist at Bethel University. “The best research is collaborative and the best ideas come through conversation,” says Johnson. (Photo by Kylie Bennethum)

The bond started during Venditto’s freshman year at Bethel University. A summer research program at bethel sparked an interest within her in neuroscience. Students met on Wednesdays to collaborate on their research with other departments. Venditto watched Johnson give his presentation on cell research and was instantly hooked.

“It was information that I had never heard of before, so I went up and told him that I was interested in neuroscience,” she said. “Since then, we meet regularly and he’s been mentoring me.”

Graphic by Tim Evancho

Adam Johnson waits in the oncology unit of the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Center. Toxic chemotherapy flows into his arm through a needle, as life-saving drugs find their way to his damaged transformed cancer cells. This is the second time colorectal cancer has resurfaced in Johnson’s cells and this time it is terminal. On his left, Luke Horstman types on his Macbook computer, coding Johnson’s theories on imagination into workable algorithms.

Horstman, a senior, began working as Johnson’s teaching assistant when he expressed an interest in neuroscience early in his college career. Although he has proctored exams, Horstman does not play the role of a normal T.A.

“When people in the physics department start talking about brains, the physics faculty sends them to me,” Johnson said. “Luke and Sarah have been working on various projects for years in the lab. Luke has done animal research on exploration.”

Luke Horstman works as a T.A. for Professor Johnson. He assists with rat trials in the science labs and codes Johnson’s theories into workable algorithms, even while by Johnson’s side during chemotherapy. “As they are giving chemo, as he has a needle in his arm, I’m sitting next to him and we are coding,” Horstman said. (Submitted photo.)

Horstman is in charge of running trials for rats in the science labs, along with occasionally helping with senior research projects that cover topics on neuroscience. The most recent project was on rat brain surgery. He takes care of the rats, prepping them for classes while researching their activity in trials. When he is not tending to the rats, Horstman is at Johnson’s side, even during chemotherapy sessions.

“I’m a cancer patient,” Johnson said. “That means that there are some days that I am incredibly sick and not functional enough to leave the house. But professionally, I interact with people all over the world. We do it through Skype. We have great conversations. So why not teach the same way?”

Johnson believes the best research is collaborative and that the best ideas come through conversation — his illness is not about to stand in the way of his love for teaching. He often takes advantage of the moments where he is not reminded of his cancer, by having bold conversations that contribute to his neuroscience research and love of teaching.

Professor Adam Johnson explains his poster and the term ‘schemas’ by providing an example. Graphic by Tim Evancho.

Neuroscience has always been on the forefront of Johnson’s mind. His research focuses on imagination, memory and schemas. While at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in D.C., Johnson presented his theories and algorithms on suggested schemas and the amount of learning potential in a one-trial development. Horstman and Venditto stood by his side at the convention and presented on a related topic: “How schemas are seen in brain activity.” Johnson is inspired to research this specific sector of neural circuits based on the possibility that the outcome could lead to a treatment for problems like drug addictions.

“I don’t think he’s distracting himself with his research, I think he wants to leave something behind,” Horstman said. “I think that’s why he’s putting so much work into Sarah and me so we can try to understand his theories. It’s all so he can leave something behind.”

He plans on attending more neuroscience conventions like SFN. The ultimate goal, he said, is to continue to update what he’s learned while learning from other people.

“All research is a story,” Johnson said, “and a story develops across years and decades and centuries. I play a part in this. My research, I hope, will be a chapter in a rather long story.”