When Alyssa Johnson walked across the stage in cap and gown as a 2014 high school senior in Manassas, Virginia, she had no idea that just a few years later she’d be preparing to make a similar walk across a stage as a graduating double major at Virginia Tech.

Science intimidated her. Virginia Tech, too, intimidated her. She didn’t know what she wanted to do.

So, to save money and navigate her future paths, Johnson attended Northern Virginia Community College in Manassas, Virginia. There, she was immersed in a community filled with diversity, her once indisputable world views were challenged, and she befriended people of all ages, backgrounds, and ambitions. 

Then one day she saw a flyer on a message board. It advertised the Virginia Tech-Virginia Community College System’s Bridges to Baccalaureate program, a 10-week program for community college students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) research.

“I had almost no idea what research was, but I decided to apply for the psychology subfield after talking to one of the recruiters about the opportunity,” Johnson said. Weeks later, she packed for Blacksburg.

“I fell in love with Tech immediately,” Johnson said. “Besides the obviously beautiful campus and the food, I felt supported by the faculty and the program I was a part of in psychology. And it was here that I learned what research was. I made the decision to attend Tech once I finished with community college.”

After two years at Northern Virginia, she came to Virginia Tech to major in psychology. At the encouragement of her advisor, she filled in an empty elective slot with a class in the burgeoning School of Neuroscience program, which, like the Department of Psychology, is in the College of Science.

“It turned out to be one of the hardest classes I’d ever had to up to that point,” Johnson said. “I spent countless hours in the library, learning and memorizing. I lost sleep and possibly shed a few tears at points. But I loved it. I was hooked, and I wanted to learn more.”

She took more neuroscience classes and decided not to switch majors from psychology to neuroscience, but to take on both majors. The intimidation she felt at 18 was gone. “I realized that I didn’t like science in high school because I didn’t understand it,” she said. “But at Virginia Tech, I learned to love it.”

She also fell deeply in love with the challenges of research. During that 10-week STEM visit to Blacksburg, she was teamed with Professor Jungmeen Kim-Spoon’s Lifespan Development Laboratory. “I helped with an ongoing project that examined risk sensitivity and reward-seeking behaviors in adolescents,” Johnson said. “During my stay, they had adolescents play games that required risk taking, such as gambling, in an fMRI machine. The goal was to ultimately gain a better understanding of how brain patterns during adolescence might explain the risky behaviors that teens are known to partake in.”

That experience prompted her to apply for a National Institute on Drug Abuse-sponsored summer internship at the University of California San Francisco to study the relationship between state-level tobacco laws and smoking behaviors by patients in addiction clinics. This was between her final year in Manassas and before her first year at Virginia Tech.

Hooked, she jumped into neuroscience research, studying sex differences in the effects of stress on behavior, the immune system, and brain cells in the lab of Georgia Hodes, an assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience. “Women experience depression at twice the rate of men, and this might be one of the reasons that depression treatments only work in a fraction of people who try them,” Johnson said.

As she closes in on that walk across the stage in cap and gown, Johnson is working as a first author on a research article on depression for the journal Neuroscience. “I am most proud of this because I feel that my time and effort in this lab paid off — I helped contribute to a discovery in depression research,” Johnson added. “I have received research awards and opportunities in the past, but I believe this paper is bigger than myself. It is something other labs and researchers will be able to build on in the future.”

A third walk across a stage is in Johnson’s future. She will apply for graduate programs in neuroscience and public health after a year off to volunteer, working with another passion she found along the way at Virginia Tech: helping refugees settle into new lives in Virginia. For the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement, she drives to Roanoke once a week to help children with homework. For the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership, she helps families with life needs, such as learning English and childcare.

Helping families find new paths in America interested Johnson because she never had that experience herself. “I was able to grow up without having to worry about working to help pay for food or family bills,” she said. “I didn't have to move to a completely different place, learn a new language, and receive limited help with the transition.”