ChBE Alumni Adrian Johnston in the JHU lab, summer 2021.
Let others be a part of your story, but don’t sit back as someone else struggles alone; be part of their story.

Adrian Johnston
Hometown: Jamesburg, NJ
Degree: 2018, B.S. ChBE

We connected with Adrian recently to learn more about his journey and why he chose Chemical Engineering at Maryland. Follow this link to watch a related video.

Can we start by discussing your background a bit?

Before I get into that, I'll start off by saying that everything I'm going to say will veer somewhat from the video posted conjunctly with this, but that's okay - you will hear/read different aspects of why I love the ChBE Department at UMD, and the University as a whole. 

I grew up in the amazing state of New Jersey where I went to elementary and high school. I moved to Montgomery County in Maryland and grew to love the state immensely, although D.C. truly has my heart. Both of my parents were entrepreneurial - my dad worked on satellites at Lockheed Martin and my mom worked at Bristol Myers Squibb (the combination of which likely contributed to my "engineering and medicine" trajectory), but what I think helped define me today was their entrepreneurship apart from their aforementioned "jobs." My mom is an amazing woman of many talents: she’s a master event planner, designer, seamstress, boutique dressmaker, etc. Before my dad passed away, he started a laptop company with a colleague. The first-hand experience of such boldness growing up is what I always return to when I feel the slightest bit of nerves concerning anything entrepreneurial. 

P.S. I want to start a biotech company that develops immunotherapies to not only treat, but cure cancer. 

Why did you choose to study at UMD?

This will likely make you laugh, but I think this says a bit about the type of person I am. I love relationships and connections, and for some reason after my dad passed away, I hold close and value relationships and mentors as family. When my mom relayed to me a message from her dearest client, Dr. Patricia Rueckel Libhart (first Dean of Women and first woman Vice President at Georgetown; side note: she used to 'shoo' President Bill Clinton out of her office telling him to go to class), that if I choose to attend UMD she will connect me with one of her mentees - I jumped at the opportunity. That person turned out to be the Director of the Stamp Student Union, Dr. Marsha Guenzler-Stevens, who is family and a mentor to this day.

And what prompted you to declare chemical engineering as your major?

It was a business decision. I knew my end goal (starting a biotech company), and my entire academic career has been based on how to accomplish this goal. This was Part I of my outline:

  • The ChBE major will teach me how to design/operate/scale-up a commercial biotech plant. It will teach me all the chemistry, biology, math, physics and engineering needed to perform related tasks.

The added benefit at UMD was that Dr. Deborah Goldberg joined from MedImmune during my tenure at UMD and taught a course (Biopharmaceutical Process Development & Manufacturing) where I learned what I never expected to learn in ChBE – the intricacies of getting a drug to market, from development to intellectual property, clinical trials, FDA-approval, scale-up, manufacturing, additives and packaging for stability during transportation and long-term storage, packaging design for ease-of-use by patients and doctors/nurses, etc.

Sounds like it was meant to be! Were you able to conduct any research during your tenure? 

Again, my academic career has been based on how to accomplish my end goal of starting/running a biotech company. Here was Part II of my outline:

  • ChBE will teach me everything mentioned above. To successfully develop immunotherapies, I must learn immunology, not just textbook immunology, but practical immunology. 

Dr. Amy Karlsson gave me the priceless advice to conduct research in the Biology Department. I listened and joined Dr. Wenxia Song’s lab where I learned cutting-edge adaptive immunology.

Excellent advice. So, what was the best thing about your experience on campus? Any challenges you had to overcome?

The people, of course. UMD never ran dry of administrators, professors, directors, etc. who were wells of encouragement and motivation for everything personal and professional. If I list everyone I will a.) forget someone, or b.) fill this page with names. When time management became a sticking point of something I tried to (unsuccessfully at first) master, their advice got me to a place I was happy with.

When not in class, how did you spend your time?

Much time was spend arguing with one of my roommates about which classical composers crafted the most beautiful masterpieces. Other than this, I spent a good chunk of time thinking about what was at the time my future company and how exactly I could use the immune system to one day cure cancer. Many days, and sleepless nights, were spent researching the immune system in Dr. Song’s lab. Organization-wise, I strengthened my research professionalism and volunteered in various capacities as a McNair Scholar, worked with UMD leaders to try to make UMD better for everyone through the Stamp Advisory Board, and raved to high schoolers and primary schoolers about how great UMD truly is through the Ambassadors Program. 

Sounds like you had a well-rounded experience! And you're currently in a Ph.D. program at John Hopkins, correct? Can you elaborate? 

To hear Adrian's response to this question, please follow this link to a Youtube video.

Engineering, especially ChemE, is a complex major – do you have any advice for incoming students as to how they can be successful?

Don’t do it alone. If you find yourself struggling, or even flying in success, don’t do it alone. I had my own struggles; it wasn’t purely academic. It was a family tragedy that shook my academics. So much so that when I got myself together and proved myself, no one believed in me except UMD (and a few folks at the University of Florida). Dr. Donald Day at Montgomery College and Dr. William Fourney, Dr. Bruk Berhane, and Jenna Bucci at UMD conspired to give me a chance to transfer to UMD. At each academic award dinner, Dr. Fourney, without fail, would say, "Glad we took the chance." This isn’t the only instance people have played a critical role in my academic career.

Use my story as encouragement; if you are struggling today, or struggle tomorrow, there are people around you, throughout the department, who are willing to help - take it. And one more thing, maybe the most crucial - this is taken from an anecdote regarding Delegate Aruna Miller, in whose Maryland state legislative office I interned, and who is family and a mentor to this day.... when I would thank Delegate Miller, she always responded, "You don’t need to thank me. Go out there and do this for someone else."

So, I’ll end on this. Let others be a part of your story, but don’t sit back as someone else struggles alone; be a part of their story.

That's excellent advice. Last question - just for fun - what do you want to be when you grow up? 

A Beatle ;-)