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PhD Student Dedicated to Serve, Mentors Future STEM Professionals

Perri Johnson, PhD student, with his advisor Dr. Denis DiAngelo, received the Lee & Jennie Beaumont Endowment Scholarship for studies in the field of arthritis & connective tissue disease in November 2022.

Perri Johnson, MS, started building objects out of Legos at an early age. Now, he is working toward a PhD in biomedical engineering while leading and serving in the UTHSC and Memphis community.

Before joining the college, Johnson, from St. Louis, Missouri, earned a dual degree in mathematics and mechanical engineering from Indiana University and Purdue University. As his undergraduate years were ending, he was unsure of whether to choose an engineering or clinical path, but after hearing of a graduate research assistant opportunity in biomedical engineering at UTHSC, Johnson said it was God leading him to pursue engineering in Memphis.

Perri Johnson

Now, he is studying in the UTHSC Graduate Health Sciences and University of Memphis Biomedical Engineering joint graduate program, which offers master’s and PhD degrees in biomedical engineering. He earned his master’s degree from the program in December 2022.

“I am pushed outside of my comfort zone every day, and although it can be challenging, I enjoy it, and it forces me to grow,” Johnson said. “I think this is where God wants me, and as long as I can do something that gives him glory, that’s all that matters.”

His athletic experience, including playing football for the University of Indianapolis, also increased his passion for studying biomedical engineering and biomechanics. “I have played sports my entire life and I gained a love for understanding how the body works,” he said. “When I arrived here and learned about biomechanics, it was the perfect combination of engineering and kinesiology, which is what I really enjoy.” 

Johnson is a graduate research assistant in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Biomedical Engineering in the UTHSC College of Medicine. Under his advisor, Denis DiAngelo, PhD, professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, he is conducting research focusing on the care of tibial bone stress injuries of recreational runners and military personnel.

“The standard care clinicians provide is to prescribe a walking boot to immobilize and reduce loads on the lower limb and allow it to heal. However, there is no research that examines the mechanical loading of the tibia, and if patients can’t flex their calf muscle, they experience muscle atrophy,” he said. “Dr. DiAngelo and his previous PhD student had been working on an alternative device, and we have been able to prove that the device reduces the load on the tibia. We are hypothesizing that it will allow healing, reduce the associated muscle atrophy, and possibly shorten the recovery period.”

In addition to his academic achievements, Johnson serves as the Graduate Health Sciences representative on the 2022-2023 executive board of the Black Student Association, an interdisciplinary organization for all students that serves to provide many opportunities such as health fairs, mentoring events, and community service.

He also serves in the community with Kingdom Community Builders, a Christian non-profit community development organization serving in the inner city of Memphis.

“At Mission Church, I’m on a team that partners with Kingdom Community Builders, and they are engaging with people in the community, providing tutoring for students, mowing grass, and helping with any technical issues in their homes,” Johnson said. “Our team gathers to lead devotionals every month, and where we engage and share the gospel with children in Orange Mound.”

Johnson is also involved in mentoring the next generation as a member of the West Tennessee STEM Hub at the University of Memphis, which provides community-engaged programs and serves as a resource to increase students’ interest in STEM fields. In this role, he teaches middle school students about opportunities in the health sciences.

“The STEM hub visits many Memphis-Shelby County Schools, assists teachers, and implements STEM concepts to students who don’t have access to it,” he said. “I’m teaching various health science concepts, career avenues, and helping broaden their understanding of the resources that are available to them.”

After graduating in 2026, Johnson hopes to build and test affordable prosthetics. “Being in this graduate program exposed me to biomechanics, a field I had never heard of before,” Johnson said. “And what God has placed on my heart is having a lab to design prosthetics, potentially with 3D printing, to minimize the costs for families and evaluate how the implementation of prostheses influences movement.” 

This story was initially published in the Spring 2023 issue of Graduate Health Sciences Magazine.