By LaTina Emerson

ATLANTA — When the COVID-19 pandemic began, aspiring physician Gem Johnson wanted to assist health care professionals and give back to her community. But because her grandmother had just been diagnosed with lung cancer, she needed to work from home to protect her family’s health.

Johnson, who is fluent in Spanish, got a job as a bilingual medical scribe working closely with a family medicine physician assistant in rural Nevada who specializes in diabetes management. The majority of the provider’s patients are Mexican immigrants with unstable health care coverage. Johnson’s responsibilities were to listen to the Spanish language medical encounters and accurately chart them on the provider’s behalf.

Johnson also assisted with referrals, prescriptions and other duties to give the physician assistant more time to focus on her patients. She held down the job until January while excelling in her classes, and will earn a degree this spring after only three years.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies in Biomedical Science and Enterprise from the Institute for Biomedical Sciences and Georgia State’s Honors College, Johnson will put her Spanish language skills to use again. She plans to travel to Peru to work with local professionals and community leaders to provide medical treatment to residents of rural Cusco. The trip is sponsored by VAW Global Alliance, an organization that specializes in administering sustainable and equitable health care to rural communities.

“I wanted the opportunity to travel outside the country and still gain practical clinical experience prior to going to medical school,” Johnson said. “Our medical treatment will vary from patient to patient, but we will be working in a primary clinic and pharmacy capacity, mainly offering treatment for parasitic infections. The inhabitants of this area of Peru live in very rural communities with little access to clean drinking water. We will be checking vitals, completing physical exams and assisting in distributing medicine.”

When she returns from Peru, the native of Loganville, Ga., plans to work at a clinic for a year before beginning medical school in fall 2023. She aspires to become a neurosurgeon.

At Georgia State, Johnson was actively involved in research. The first in her family to pursue studies in medicine or research, for two years she worked on cardiovascular projects in Ping Song’s lab in the Center for Molecular and Translational Medicine, which led to her being a published author. Just 19 years old at the time, she was listed as the second author of a paper published in two scientific journals, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in May 2021 and the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in June 2021.

The study’s goal was to determine the best rat model for cardiovascular disease in humans.

Johnson also encouraged other students to get involved in research. As co-chairwoman of the Georgia State Undergraduate Research Conference, she urged students to submit research proposals, recruited moderators for the event, promoted the event on social media, oversaw the responsibilities of subcommittees and engaged with staff and faculty to organize judges.

She was also an Honors College Ambassador, a student leader who represents the college at recruitment, alumni and campus events.

She chose the Biomedical Science and Enterprise major because she wanted something different from her high school experience, which was primarily focused on science, technology, engineering and math curriculum.

“I learned and gained so much from the Biomedical Science and Enterprise program,” Johnson said. “Not only have I met outstanding professors who have greatly influenced my undergraduate experience at Georgia State, but the interdisciplinary classes have truly molded me into a well-rounded individual. I feel as if I am more than prepared for medical school, but I also think my business classes have provided me the necessary foundation for any business ventures I might want to pursue as a doctor.”

Photo by Meg Buscema

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