FORT DETRICK, Md. — At Fort Detrick’s U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, the workforce is a mix of military personnel, government civilians and contractors. Despite their varying backgrounds, each member of Team RIID contributes to the mission — conducting and supporting research that leads to medical solutions for protecting warfighters and civilians against deadly biological threats.
To hear Dr. Sara Johnston tell it, Team RIID is united by one other quality: the desire to serve their country. Johnston, a research microbiologist in the institute’s virology division, knows a thing or two about service. On Jan. 27, 2023, she was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, surrounded by dozens of friends and co-workers. Her recruiter, Staff Sgt. Travis Morrisey, attended the ceremony, and her boss, Col. Kurt Schaecher — a fellow microbiologist, or 71A, as they’re called in the Army — administered the oath.
“Ever since I was young, I’ve wanted to join the military, and I found another way to serve that community by coming to USAMRIID,” said Johnston. “However, there was always still that burning desire to be a part of the Army. At the age of 40, I reflected on this, and I didn’t want to have any regrets, so I reached out to an Army Medicine recruiter and decided it was time to take this step.”
Johnston, originally from New York, has a bachelor’s degree in biology and pre-medicine from Utica College of Syracuse University — now Utica University — and a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. As a child, she wanted to pursue a career as a physician but says she “fell in love with research” during her college years. From undergraduate courses in cell biology, to a master’s program in virology, her path led her to a doctoral degree — and a decision — in 2008.
“I knew I had a passion for science, but I was also in search of ways to serve my country—and at USAMRIID, I found an opportunity to do both,” she said. “I reached out to several investigators [at USAMRIID] for potential postdoc positions and ended up connecting with Dr. Jay Goff and Dr. Lisa Hensley in virology. Like they say, the rest is history: nearly 14 years later, I’m still here.”
From that initial postdoctoral research position, Johnston has grown into a principal investigator leading large, multi-tiered studies. Using animal models to study the course of infection and to evaluate new vaccines and treatments for potential use in human patients, she has contributed to the knowledge base on several diseases of military importance. In addition, her portfolio includes work on some of the most hazardous viruses in the world — including Marburg, Nipah and Ebola — which require maximum containment at biosafety level, or BSL, 4.
USAMRIID is the only Department of Defense facility with BSL-4 capability, where scientists wear positive-pressure encapsulating suits and breathe filtered air as they work. The institute also has several BSL-3 containment laboratories, where researchers study viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and monkeypox, as well as bacterial threats including plague and tularemia. Both BSL-3 and BSL-4 suites operate under continuous negative air pressure, all waste streams are sterilized, and multiple layers of training and personal protective equipment are required.
Despite the challenges of working in a BSL-4 environment, Johnston said the research itself is extremely rewarding.
“I’ve had many scientific achievements over the years, and each of those is memorable and so very important to me,” she said. “But the two most memorable moments of my career were the day I first walked through the doors of USAMRIID nearly 14 years ago, and my commissioning ceremony last month.
“I wish more people knew about USAMRIID — the brilliant minds who work here, the people who are willing to turn on a moment’s notice to address a national crisis, the scientific and administrative staff who go beyond, on a daily basis, to support a mission that’s bigger than themselves,” she said. “That’s what makes us a center of research excellence.
“I’ve also had so many wonderful people in my life who have influenced me in my career — professors who taught me the love of science, my mom who has always been there for me and who encouraged me to try graduate school before medical school, mentors who taught me the joy of research, the USAMRIID community and my huge support network of friends and family,” she added. “And, finally, my boyfriend Mike, who has encouraged me to be myself and who always has my back.”
Being in the best shape of her life, “even better than during college,” Johnston said, was another factor in her decision to reach out to an Army recruiter. A former two-sport athlete who also served as a volunteer firefighter for eight years, she is an avid gym enthusiast and works as a personal trainer in her off-duty hours. She and Schaecher chatted about basic training after the commissioning ceremony, where he jokingly told her, “There’s a good chance you’ll be the only Ph.D.” in the course.
On a more serious note, according to Schaecher, 71A Army officers have myriad skill sets that allow them to work in clinical, operational, research and acquisition environments.
“Every field hospital has a microbiologist,” he explained. “Our job is to work hand in hand with the health care team to deliver the answers they need. For example, if a patient has an infection, it’s our job to identify it and determine which treatments would work best.”
But whether they’re in the lab or in the field, the main mission is providing the best possible care to the warfighter — making Johnston’s new job not so very different from her current one.
“I just want to keep doing this work to the best of my ability, both as an Army civilian and an Army Reservist, and continue to make a difference,” she said. “I’m proud to have finally taken this step — but more importantly, I’m so proud to have the opportunity to serve my country in yet another important way.”