Alumni Spotlight: Dontrez Johnson ’16

Dontrez Johnson graduated from FPD in 2016 with aspirations of pursuing a career in the medical field. Within a few short years of leaving the Day School, Dontrez is  presenting cardiology research in front of thousands of people. However, his journey during those first few years was quite the adventure.

Dontrez’s first step out of high school took him to Walsh University. After a year at the Ohio-based university, he decided to move back to the south and enroll at Tennessee State University (TSU).

Roller-coaster begins

Dontrez transferred to Tennessee State University with the elated expectation of enrolling on a football scholarship. When he arrived, he learned the school had given the scholarship to another athlete. With the funds from the scholarship gone, Dontrez faced the choice of changing directions or continuing to persevere.

“I wasn’t sure what to do,” recalls Dontrez. “I didn’t have the funds to pay for school and thought about coming home and taking a year off, but something kept telling me I needed to stay.”

Dontrez started researching grants, loans, and scholarships – anything that could help him pay for school. The answer came by way of the Tennessee Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (TLSAMP) program. The program provided a scholarship that allowed Dontrez to stay at TSU.

Cardiology breakthroughs

One short semester later, Dontrez enrolled in Tennessee State University’s Honors Program, and through that program came Dontrez’s biggest opportunity. He was selected for the American Heart Association’s HBCU Scholars program

The American Heart Association’s HBCU Scholars program gives pre-med students the opportunity to study under the leadership of the nation’s top doctors and medical researchers. Dontrez chose Dr. David G. Harrison and Dr. David Patrick, both leading cardiologists at Vanderbilt University. This life-changing opportunity gave Dontrez access to teams at the forefront of cardiology research

Dontrez joined Dr. Harrison’s and Dr. Patrick’s team studying hypertension, heart failure, and lupus. Through their research, the team developed a novel screening process that can identify antibodies related to these diseases. These antibodies can potentially lead to the development of vaccinations, a discovery that could alter the way the diseases are treated and save lives.

In the summer of 2019, Dontrez presented the team’s breakthrough research at the Tennessee Academy of Science’s Collegiate Meeting. He placed third out of more than 200 presenters.

Nation-wide presentations, more research, and the beginning of a bright future

His work with Dr. Harrison and Dr. Patrick launched a series of further presentations, speaking engagements, and research opportunities. Dontrez studied flavonoids and their effect on aging under the leadership of Dr. William Boadi. He spoke at a fundraising event for the American Heart Association in Martha’s Vineyard. He presented to the Board of Education in Washington, D.C. Soon, he will serve as a panelist at conferences in New Orleans and in Philadelphia.

Dontrez graduates from TSU in May with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry. He will begin a post-baccalaureate program and continue with research in cardiology before beginning medical school.

Looking back on his days at FPD, Dontrez attributes his ability to find balance and persevere to the skills he gained while in high school. “FPD provided a baseline by giving me exposure to the workload. I am very thankful for that,” he says. “One thing I always say is, ‘Without struggle, there is no progress.’ I have struggled, and now I am seeing the fruits of my labor.”