CTSA Profile: Giving Back to Translational Science with Administrative Skills

Karen O. Johnson, Grants and Program Manager for Duke CTSA

April 18, 2016

As a child, Karen Johnson benefited greatly from scientific advances and medical care. Now, as the Grants and Program Manager for Duke’s $50M, 5-year Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA), she takes great pride in being part of the culture of translational medicine at Duke. “I don’t have the science aptitude to be a great doctor or scientist, but I can give back by being an effective administrator,” she says.

Here, in her own words, is a glimpse of what brought her to the world of medicine and research at Duke.


How would you describe your job to a teenager?

I’m mostly sitting behind a computer making sure that the CTSA and the programs we work with here at Duke are in compliance with federal regulations and laws when it comes to how research funds are spent. With government funding there is a lot of paperwork! I also assist researchers in obtaining funds – looking at budgetary aspects of grant applications, describing facilities researchers have available at Duke, etc. I see my work as helping the researchers focus on science and thought leadership while I focus on administration and finances. I was attracted to working on the CTSA grant because it touches so many different researchers and staff. With the Duke CTSA, I know my work is impacting a lot of people.


How did you get to this role?

I originally came to Duke in 2002 after I realized that doing a masters of public administration wasn’t what I wanted. I got a temporary job working for Dr. Kim Lyerly in the Duke Cancer Center. Although I knew nothing about cancer research, I was really thrilled to be a witness to cutting-edge immunotherapy cancer research. Like so many people, my family has lost loved ones way too early to cancer. I wanted to do my part, no matter how small, to move cancer research forward. Also, with a background in public policy, economics, and political science, I was fascinated by the politics and structure of research funding in academia. I was soon a full-time employee at the Cancer Center focusing on special projects for the Director, and eventually moved to a business manager position at the Nicholas School of the Environment. In 2009 I left Duke to live in Wilmington, NC, but I returned to Duke in 2011and eventually to the CTSA  as a grants manager in 2014, and now also serve as the CTSA Program Manager.


What do you do when you aren’t at Duke?

I like to hang out with my husband, my three dogs, and our cat. My husband and I love animals; our house has always been full of them. We also like to travel, and I play a bit of golf with him. We often travel to the Washington DC area because our families are there and we are quite close to them. I also have a bit of an artistic side. Maybe it is genetic, because my great grandfather was a sculptor – he sculpted one of the bronze sculptures in New York’s Central Park. I tend to dabble in lots of different art activities. I’ve done stained glass and pottery. I’m thinking of returning to oil painting. And I still want to learn how to knit.  


What are you currently reading?

I like to read about public policy, particularly health policy. Right now I’m working my way through “The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a physician and scientist at Harvard. He calls the book “a biography of cancer” but it reads like a novel, full of fascinating stories and anecdotes. The other book on my nightstand is “The Power of Positive Dog Training” because we just got an adorable puppy and it has been 16 years since I’ve had one.


What is your routine for sanity?

If I didn’t hate bugs and snakes so much I’d probably live on a farm. Having my animals and being out in nature is very grounding and a stress reliever for me – and I often need some stress relief when grant deadlines are looming. But I also meditate most mornings and try to do exercise and yoga regularly.


What fascinates you about being in the world of research?

Here at Duke you get to work with amazing, passionate, intelligent, and motivated people. I can’t imagine a place that allows more continuous learning than Duke. But there is also a sense of giving back. When I was six years, doctors discovered a golfball-sized tumor in my femur. It was benign, but it damaged the way my leg grew and by 7th grade was badly deformed. I had multiple surgeries between the ages of 6 and 17. I owe a lot to research, good doctors, and access to good medical care. I saw big advances in orthopedic surgery during those years. Therapies not available when I was six were developed as I grew up; and I benefited directly from this medical research and innovation. I now have an intimate understanding of the research world and I’m thankful for the opportunity to give back and participate in research at Duke.