Alum of the Month

April 2022

April 2022
Don Johann

(MS, Computer Science, ’88)

Q & A:

  • What was your favorite class, who was your favorite professor, or what is your fondest memory of Hofstra?
    My favorite class was my Computer Science Master’s Thesis, since it allowed me to formulate and pursue my own area of inquiry. I initially met with Professor Philip Panzeca (then chair and director of the Computer Science Graduate Program) and discussed the requirements and thoughts I had concerning a thesis topic. He was very encouraging and supportive, especially since I wanted to conduct the thesis work concerning a medically based computer science topic.

    Professor George Sanderson from the Department of Computer Science at Hofstra served as my principal thesis advisor. Professor John Impagliazzo was a part of my thesis committee and was very supportive; I’ve had occasional contact with him over the years. My master’s thesis concerned an artificial intelligence colon cancer application (diagnosis and treatment), and the medical portion was conducted at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City with a Columbia faculty member. It was this experience that prompted me to pursue becoming a physician as a second career.
  • What was your first job after graduating from Hofstra, and what was the most valuable thing learned in that position?
    My experience was a bit different since I attended Hofstra in the evening [in the graduate program for computer science]. During the day, I worked as an engineer for the Sperry/Unisys Corporation in Great Neck on projects that involved advance avionics software and instrumentation. These were busy times, and one of the most valuable things I learned was “time management,” which remains very important today.
  • What is your field of specialty, and how did you come to work in the industry?
    My field of specialty is medical oncology, but I really work as a physician/scientist.

    Following medical school and residency, I spent 10 years at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland. It was at the NCI that I was able to develop a broad background in cancer basic science along with medical oncology fellowship training. The first three years were spent as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Lab of Pathology, under the mentorship of Lance Liotta, MD, PhD. This was followed by four years as an NCI Hematology Oncology Fellow. I subsequently applied and was accepted into the NCI Clinical Investigator Development Program and became an assistant investigator at the NCI Center for Cancer Research (CCR). During this time and extending through today, computational science has been essential to my cancer-based research activities.
  • What advice would you give Hofstra students?
    Find your passion, seize it, and launch it into an exciting life.
  • In one word, how would you describe Hofstra?
    Accommodating. I attended Hofstra as a part-time graduate student, taking classes in the evening and working during the day. The Hofstra computer science faculty were generous with their time and enthusiastically supported the computer science thesis topic, which involved logistical challenges regarding coordinating research and scholarly activity with another university (Columbia, NYC).
  • What is the most rewarding part of your career?
    The most rewarding aspect of my career is using science to help patients in their battle with cancer. This involves solving unique problems. Computational science is now an essential ingredient in the solutions of these quantitative biology and “precision medicine” problems.
  • How did you make the transition from engineering to medicine?
    It started with the Hofstra computer science graduate program allowing me to pursue and formulate a medically based computer science thesis topic. The Hofstra computer science graduate faculty was led by Professor John Impagliazzo. Being awarded Graduate with Distinction status confirmed the quality of the thesis. Shortly after this, I left my position at Sperry/Unisys, took the premedical-required courses along with the medical school entrance exam, and was fortunate to be accepted to medical school at Case Western in Cleveland. Although I have transitioned from engineering to medicine, many of the problem-solving approaches remain remarkably similar.
  • What is a typical day like for a medical oncologist?
    I’m not a typical medical oncologist. I run three research labs, two of which concern different aspects of Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) based assays. One lab involves NGS sample prep and instrumentation. Another lab is staffed with computer scientists and concerns the development of advanced bioinformatics and analysis of all sorts of cancer-related data sets. The third is my personal lab that concerns the development of cancer-based animal models and the research and development of more advanced cancer-based molecular diagnostics. So, there are a lot of meetings with different types of scientists and physicians. Also, preparing, pursuing, and maintaining federal grant funding is very important and occupies a good amount to time and effort.

    My clinical duties involve being the ward attending on the cancer service about 10% of my time. This involves seeing patients, rounding, and supervising the clinical team.
  • How has your degree from Hofstra helped you in your career?
    Biomedicine is now a quantitative science. The new advanced molecular profiling technologies (e.g., next-generation sequencing) are providing opportunities to study disease at a molecular level with a depth and breadth that was not possible just a few years ago. However, there are associated challenges and these concern the massive amount of complex data produced by these studies, and this requires advanced computational science methodologies. My background and graduate degree in computer science continues to provide unique insights as a medical oncologist, allowing me to contribute to the progress in cancer medicine and improved outcomes for cancer patients.
Don Johann

Dr. Donald Johann was the first person in his family to attend college during the day. He pursued a bachelor’s degree at Fordham University on a full-tuition scholarship (academic and athletic). Upon graduation, he began his career as an engineer for the Sperry/Unisys Corporation, where he directed a team of five engineers on projects involving advanced avionic software design and instrumentation. This position required a top-secret security clearance. During this time, he attended graduate school in the evenings, earning a Master of Science in Computer Science with distinction from Hofstra University. His master’s thesis concerned a colon cancer application and was conducted jointly at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City with a Columbia faculty member. This experience inspired him to pursue a second career as a physician.

Dr. Johann earned the MD from Case Western, where he graduated with distinction. Following residency, he became a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Cancer Institute (NCI) Lab of Pathology, under the mentorship of Dr. Lance Liotta. He was twice selected for an AACR Scholar-in-Training Award for research work involving novel bioinformatics. At present, Dr. Johann is a physician/scientist, medical oncologist, and professor at University of Arkansas for Medical Science (UAMS) and director of the UAMS Genomics Sequencing Facility. He has published more than 50 manuscripts to date, many in high-profile journals. His work has generated approximately $5 million in peer-reviewed NIH funding since 2015. He is a recognized international expert in the emerging field of liquid biopsy translational science, for which he is frequently asked to present at national and international meetings.

Dr. Johann is a member of numerous UAMS committees, including Cancer Institute Senior Leaders, Patent and Copyright, Tissue Use, and Faculty Search. His activities regarding the development of educational materials and teaching include courses on precision oncology concepts, liquid biopsy concepts, advanced clinical trials, and next-generation sequencing (NGS). He has been a member of the UAMS graduate faculty since 2012. Under Dr. Johann’s leadership (2015-present), the UAMS Genomics Facility (Core) was completely reconstituted and has grown from a “developing resource” to an official UAMS core facility (January 2019). Today, it provides services to UAMS researchers and numerous educational facilities throughout the state of Arkansas, offering state-of-the-art NGS and related services (e.g., 10x single cell assays, liquid biopsy assays). He has a strong record of successful mentorship of postdoctoral fellows and hematology/oncology fellows. Four of his five mentees have become productive members of the UAMS Department of Biomedical Informatics faculty. He has also successfully mentored graduate, medical students, and undergraduate students. Recently, two of the UAMS medical students he mentored graduated with “Honors in Research” based on work completed in his lab.