Written by Jesse Chambers
Photo by Beau Gustafson
Ophelia Johnson, a graduate student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB), is a budding academic superstar. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering at UAB in 2015 and is pursuing a master of engineering in design and commercialization degree through the School of Engineering and the Collat School of Business.
In November, Johnson received a coveted Marshall Scholarship from the United Kingdom—awarded to only 40 U.S. students annually—and will study medical-device design and entrepreneurship at Imperial College London for a year beginning in October. Johnson, who also received a prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship as an undergraduate, is a woman and African-American who is entering a field not traditionally associated with inclusion. And Johnson collaborates with other talented graduate students—most of them in biomedical engineering—in a four-room workspace in the Hoehn Engineering Building, where they search for ways to make health care better and more efficient. “It’s our own version of the iLab at the Innovation Depot,” she told a recent visitor to the students’ lair. “It’s our innovation space.”
Best of all, Johnson is grateful for having found a home at UAB, especially given some of the challenges she has faced. The New Orleans native saw her life radically altered by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when she was only 11 years old. Johnson and her family, including her mom and her brother William, lost their home in New Orleans East and had to be rescued from the floodwaters before leaving the Crescent City for good.
But Johnson continued to pursue her dreams, due in part to her hardworking mother’s example, even as her family moved several times, living in Texas, Florida, and Georgia, forcing her to adjust to new friends and new schools. Johnson got an early introduction to technology courtesy of her mom, Deidra Hodges, an electrical engineer and a great role model who worked, according to Johnson, in “entirely male-dominated” departments but still stuck to her career path. In fact, Johnson’s hands-on tech training was “jumpstarted” in New Orleans when she was only 6 years old after Hodges started her own company, Computer Solutions and Services. “It was a start-up, and she needed help, so she taught me how to do database entry and work with computers,” Johnson says.
And she found her life’s true calling and purpose—a deep desire to help others—in the midst of the heartbreak of Katrina, another sign for her that all things work out in life for those with faith and persistence. It was the human toll that Johnson witnessed after Hurricane Katrina—people trapped on the water or an airport runway with no medical care—that gave her a passion to help others and to help promote better, cheaper, and more portable and accessible health care for all. “I thought, ‘I can solve this problem as a physician. I’m going to pre-med,’” she says. However, when she came to UAB, she switched from pre-med to bio-engineering, a joint program of the UAB schools of Engineering and Medicine. “It clicked for me,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ll use medical devices to help change the world.’” At Imperial College London, Johnson will focus on the research that shapes design and the way design impacts manufacturing and overall costs.
Johnson is already developing prototype medical devices, including a graphic interface linked wirelessly to a glucometer implanted in the skin that will allow diabetes patients to track their own blood sugar. “It will help them not just look at the numbers but to act on them, to use them in a way that will make a difference in their health,” she says. Along with her fellow students in the Hoehn workspace, which has a machine shop and 3-D printer, Johnson is working on numerous other inventions. The group is making a wheelchair scale that will allow hospital staff to weigh patients who are unable to stand. “[The scale] can be hooked up to WiFi and Bluetooth chips so the information can be sent to a mobile phone,” Johnson says as she shows the prototypes to her visitor. Johnson also serves regularly as a speaker, mentor, and role model for young women and minorities, whom she says are “extremely underrepresented” in the STEM disciplines. Her mom’s persistence in a male-dominated field inspired Johnson “to go out and tell young girls and other minorities, ‘It doesn’t matter what environment you’re in—you can do it if you just believe in yourself.’”
Some members of these underrepresented groups are afraid to pursue STEM careers because they struggled with math or science in high school, according to Johnson, so she often shares the story of her own post-Katrina academic struggles at a private school in Winter Haven, Florida, that was tougher academically than her old schools. “I tell them, ‘Don’t let that hold you back.’ I was failing math in middle school, and I went from failing math to tutoring other students in calculus,” Johnson says.
She is “super excited” about the possibilities of more women and minorities entering the STEM disciplines. “I see a peak in interest [among those groups], and I think that will continue to grow,” she says. Her own mom continues to inspire her. After Katrina, Hodges earned her PhD in electrical engineering from the University of South Florida and teaches at The University of Texas at El Paso. “She’s my superwoman,” Johnson says.
Johnson told UAB News it’s been “a beautiful journey” from Katrina to UAB, though it’s been tough at times, including her father’s death from lung cancer. But she believes deeply that things work out in life, despite setbacks or even tragedies. “We learned so much in each different event or each different move that you can’t regret anything,” she says. “You have to just be grateful for everything that happened.” •
Tags: Jesse Chambers