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Breaking Barriers: Dr. Joyce Johnson Elevates Women and DOs at the Federal Level

September 01, 2022


Joyce Johnson DORear Admiral Joyce Johnson, DO, MA, U.S. Public Health Service (retired) enjoyed a decorated career, serving in leadership positions in both military and civilian capacities. Her last active-duty assignment was with the U.S. Coast Guard as director, health and safety (“surgeon general”). In this role, Dr. Johnson managed the Coast Guard’s healthcare system and also had responsibilities for worklife and safety. Her other government assignments included senior scientific and management positions with the Food and Drug Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as well as clinical responsibilities at the National Institute of Mental Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs, among other appointments.

Dr. Johnson’s significant achievements and groundbreaking leadership serve as a powerful and inspiring example to women across the osteopathic profession and beyond. In celebration of Women in Medicine Month, AACOM spoke with Dr. Johnson about her introduction to the osteopathic profession, her military experience and her advice for osteopathic medical researchers.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a doctor, and more specifically, a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO)?

Dr. Johnson: Actually, I wanted to be a medical epidemiologist, and that required becoming a doctor first. I wanted to be an EIS (Epidemic Intelligence Service) officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When I was about 8 or 10 years old, my mother took a public health course, as part of her college curriculum to become an elementary school teacher. An assigned book was Eleven Blue Men by Berton Roueche, which describes eleven blue bodies in the morgue, and the medical epidemiology required to accurately assess the cause of death. Every night at the dinner table, my mother would relay another of the stories. To a young child, this sounded like interesting and adventuresome work. I went to medical school to become an epidemiologist at CDC—and that’s what I did. I was one of the first to do epidemiologic research on AIDS, before it was known to be a virus (HIV). A few of my other “firsts” include being the first DO student to participate in CDC’s medical student epidemiology rotations, the first DO in the EIS program and also the first DO in CDC’s Preventive Medicine Residency Program.

Being raised in Minnesota, I didn’t know about the osteopathic profession. After graduate school, I worked as a statewide health planner in Iowa at the Iowa Regional Medical Program (IRMP). The IRMP developed innovative programs to expand healthcare to the rural parts of the state. As I worked with physicians around the state, I found that the DOs were very engaged and willing to try new methods of healthcare delivery, such as supporting the training of office nurses to become nurse practitioners. The IRMP also funded a hypertension screening program at the Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine. From these experiences I came to know the osteopathic profession and found a kindred spirit there. This was the origins of my interest in pursuing a DO degree.

Q: The osteopathic community has a close relationship with the U.S. military. What motivated you to join the Coast Guard?

Dr. Johnson: As an EIS Officer at CDC, I was commissioned into the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), one of the seven uniformed services. The physicians serving the Coast Guard are actually PHS officers detailed to the Coast Guard. When assigned to the Coast Guard, the officers change to Coast Guard uniforms and essentially become part of the Coast Guard. That was my path to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard was by far my favorite active-duty assignment. I am very committed to the Coast Guard’s multiple missions. On a day-to-day basis, everyone in the Coast Guard was devoted to their work, understood and accepted their responsibilities and got the job done. It was a very challenging and interesting position—one where you could make a difference.

Q: In addition to your military experience, you’ve also served in leadership at a large non-profit research foundation. AACOM is currently prioritizing increased National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for osteopathic medical research. Given your extensive experience working with federal agencies, what advice would you share with osteopathic researchers interested in pursuing federal funding opportunities?

Dr. Johnson: I could give a weeklong seminar on this topic—but I will try to condense it. First, there are research grants and also government contracts. Though they tend to fund very different types of things, they have some commonalities. Perhaps the most important guidance for grant seekers is to learn as much as possible about the funding agency and the specific opportunity, and to make certain that you are very qualified, ideally the best qualified, for the award, whether research grant or contract. Second, is to fully understand the application process, whether writing a grant application or responding to a contract RFP (request for proposal). I have had some experience with both, and the work I am currently doing for the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs is through a competitive contract I applied for and won.

Though there are exceptions, such as young investigator awards, NIH grant funding tends to go to principal investigators who have already done a lot of NIH research. Beginning in the NIH research arena can be challenging. One generally begins as a junior researcher on a team with others. This may be as a post-doc at NIH or, more often, working with a university-based research team. A post-doctoral (“post-doc”) position at NIH is a very good way to begin. Another essential credential is a substantial list of publications. Co-authoring with experienced NIH researchers helps at the beginning. Becoming an NIH extra-mural researcher mid-career is difficult, unless one has had prior NIH experience and is well-known to NIH.

When one thinks of medical research, NIH is usually the federal agency one considers.  However, many other parts of the federal government support research of various types—look for an agency with a focus on one’s particular research interest.

Remember, there are also a number of non-federal sources that fund research—even the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). Very early in my career I received a research grant from the AOA Bureau of Research for a project about manual medicine in Thailand and Japan. Many healthcare foundations, especially those that focus on a specific disease, have research funding. The key is to match one’s capabilities and interests with the research focus of the organization. If the organization knows you, perhaps from volunteer work, speaking at national meetings, or writing an article in their newsletter, that is also helpful. The ability to write a compelling proposal (including a budget) that clearly describes the proposed research and how the results will contribute to the organization’s mission also increases the likelihood of funding.

AACOM thanks Dr. Johnson for her significant contributions to the osteopathic profession and for setting an inspiring example for women in osteopathic medicine and beyond.