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The Johnson & Johnson under 40 to watch list: 6 young trailblazing scientists

These up-and-coming stars in oncology, immunology, anti-aging, vaccines and other areas of research are helping to change healthcare as we know it. And they’re just at the beginning of their brilliant careers.

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Johnson & Johnson has been a cutting-edge healthcare company since its founding in 1886. One secret to this storied reputation as a global groundbreaker? Making it a priority to attract—and nurture—young scientists.

“Candidates early in their careers can improve the diversity of our workforce with new concepts, ideas and technologies that maybe weren’t part of their chosen field five or 10 years before,” says Chuck Fuges, Global Head of Sourcing, Talent Acquisition, Johnson & Johnson. “Oftentimes, they also bring fresh approaches to learning and problem-solving, which are highly valued at our company.”

This week, Janssen Pharmaceuticals—which develops treatments in the areas of neurology, oncology, infectious diseases and more—is celebrating its anniversary of joining the Johnson & Johnson family of companies in 1961.

In homage, we’re spotlighting six young researchers across the company who are helping to propel it well into the 21st century.

Julie M. Bianchini, Ph.D., 29

“I found my passion for science early in life. In high school, I did discovery research on molecular biology through the Waksman Student Scholars Program at Rutgers University, and continued conducting research throughout my undergrad studies there.

As a graduate student at Stanford University, I won a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study the mechanism that regulates cell adhesion and migration (the movement and growth of embryonic cells that form tissues and organs).

I’ve always challenged myself to conduct scientific research at a level higher than the position I was currently in—as an undergrad, I strove to operate like a grad student, and as a grad student, I aimed to conduct research like a postdoc.
While finishing grad school, I interviewed with the Consumer R&D group at Johnson & Johnson, and was inspired to join the team because of their scientific research and depth of knowledge in skin biology. For me, working on products that had the potential to improve the lives of consumers was motivating and exciting.

As part of the Global Beauty R&D team, we try to understand the mechanisms by which skin ages, and how to improve its health and beauty. My focus is on investigating new active ingredients, and developing in vitro and clinical methods for measuring improved skin benefits.

I feel empowered to develop new breakthroughs and grow as a scientific leader within the organization. And I look forward to the day when the first product I worked on hits store shelves!”
Julie Bianchini Headshot

Priyanka Nair-Gupta, Ph.D., 31

“My fascination with cancer immunology began my sophomore year of college, when I took my first immunology class. I spent hours in my professor’s lab working to clear tumors in mice. It was valuable hands-on learning that taught me to think critically, design experiments, generate and present data, and publish papers—all skills I’m using now.

In 2015, I began a postdoctoral fellowship at Janssen in oncology discovery. At the time, the group’s main focus was acute myeloid leukemia (AML)—a cancer that begins in the bone marrow, where new blood cells form and can quickly spread to the blood. Patients often relapse, likely because certain factors about bone marrow make cancer cells resistant to several therapies. The five-year overall survival rate is only 26%.

The team was interested in testing how effective their AML therapies are against these factors in the bone marrow, and researching ways to block the pathway that interferes with these drugs. AML’s low survival rate, and the real clinical relevance of this project, drew me to the position—as did my manager’s enthusiasm about science during the interview!

Last September, I transitioned to a full-time role and am leading two new therapeutic programs: one for AML and the other for lymphoma. Throughout the life of each project, I’ll be able to stay involved on some level, which is a unique benefit to how Johnson & Johnson works. I’m always learning something new here.”
Inset - Next Gen Scientist - Priyanka Nair-Gupta,

Travis Stiles, Ph.D., 36

“In my senior year of college, a fraternity brother passed away from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease. I remember vividly the sense of powerlessness felt by everyone involved, and it inspired me to commit my future to research—where I would always have the power to do something in the face of a problem.

My research first took shape as a first-year Ph.D. student, when I stumbled on a potential novel receptor in the central nervous system that appeared to be involved with failed nerve regeneration. Right after graduation in 2013, I started Novoron Bioscience to develop drugs designed to target this receptor and restore the natural healing of damaged nerves. Novoron believes these therapies can promote regeneration of the brain and spinal cord, and reverse the devastating consequences of nerve damage, such as paralysis.

In October 2014, we went from incubating at a small biotech company to joining the San Diego branch of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS, an incubator division of the company. Best decision ever. The charitable spirit of the staff has been amazing. They have gone out of their way to foster our success, from making introductions to providing mentorship opportunities. Our close proximity to other companies is also invaluable—I rely on the expertise of people at different companies here. You never feel like you have to be secretive.

Since our move to JLABS, we started a second main program focused on Multiple Sclerosis (MS), with funding from a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. It’s aimed at restoring myelin—the protective coating around the nerve—to help reverse nerve damage and paralysis in the disease.

There are a lot of diseases where our therapies can be useful. We’re committed to fully exploring the potential of our technology wherever we may have an impact.”
A photo of Travis Stiles

Nika Strokappe, Ph.D., 33

“Prior to working at Janssen, I focused my Ph.D. on finding what are called broadly neutralizing antibody fragments—particularly those called VHH, which can inhibit HIV. After my Ph.D., I worked for a startup where I generated VHH against a variety of other targets, depending on what customers needed. They were often scientists requesting these antibodies to create therapies.

When I joined Janssen’s SubUnit Vaccine Design group in 2015, I designed proteins that would go into vaccines for different diseases. Last year, I switched to another side of vaccines: developing and safety testing viral vectors for the Vaccine Generation Group. We’re using a virus—in a form that doesn’t make you ill—as a shuttle to get the gene of a disease we want to vaccinate against into your cell. Your body will then start to produce proteins of the disease, but not the full disease. When your body notices it’s infected by these foreign proteins, it creates memory cells that will protect you if you encounter the real virus.

Currently, there are vector projects for Ebola, HIV and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This year, I began testing a new vector insert for human papillomavirus (HPV). Some patients whose pap smears come back HPV-positive are told to wait to see if the virus clears on its own—or turns into cancer. That would be stressful to me! I’d rather have a vaccine to know if my body can learn to clear the virus within a few months; if it can’t, I can decide much sooner about next steps.”
Nika Strokappe Headshot

Shannon Telesco, Ph.D., 34

“My curiosity about the role diet plays in our health started with my mom. Autoimmune diseases were prevalent in her family, and when I was growing up, she devoured nutrition research, trying to prevent immune disorders in her children.

My own research led me to the hypothesis that most immune diseases stem from the digestive system, which left me wanting to understand the gut immune system.

I started at Janssen in 2011 as a computational biologist in the immunology group for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—a group of conditions characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative disease. For many studies, I was using those quantitative skills to identify biomarkers—biologic features, such as protein patterns, that can be measured in patients—as a novel approach to personalizing treatment for IBD.

Now I’m leading Janssen’s disease interception program for IBD. Our work tries to identify who is at risk for IBD, and devise strategies to prevent people from progressing to a diagnosis. This is part of Janssen’s interception focus: go beyond disease treatment and promote health maintenance.

IBD and other immune diseases are rising rapidly, especially in children. Figuring this huge puzzle out is really what drives me. I want our program to untangle what in our environment, including our food, is triggering these diseases, so my 2-year-old son will experience a different health environment than my mom.”
Shannon Telesco Headshot

Bianca Van Broeck, Ph.D., 36

“A high school chemistry teacher sparked my initial interest in science by giving us experience in a lab and showing us that science could be fun.

My focus narrowed to Alzheimer’s disease when a professor—an authority on Alzheimer’s—selected me to do my master’s and Ph.D. thesis work in her lab. I developed cellular models with the same protein abnormalities in their brains as Alzheimer’s patients. The disease was always of interest to me—it affects so many people and just takes everything from them.

I joined Janssen as a postdoctoral researcher in 2008, which was a great opportunity to continue working on Alzheimer’s for a well-respected company. My projects involve testing new therapeutics on the cellular and mouse models. I’ve moved up the ranks over time, and now I’m guiding technicians in their lab work, and collaborating with scientists at other research sites.

At present, we’re testing a specific therapy in mice to remove the protein abnormalities in the brain that are linked to Alzheimer’s. While we have a long way to go before it’s tested in humans, major progress in Alzheimer’s research has been made in the last couple of years, with several clinical trials coming out. A key driver for me is focusing on the end goal: making a difference for patients.”
Bianca Van Broeck Headshot

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