Neuroscience community honors Dr. Sarah Johnson

Drs. Sarah Johnson (left) & Sara Burke

By Todd Taylor

The University of Florida neuroscience community is mourning the loss of Sarah A. Johnson, Ph.D., a beloved colleague who died Jan. 28.

Known as “SJ,” Johnson, 38, joined UF’s department of neuroscience in 2014 as a postdoctoral fellow with a research focus on investigating the effects of aging on neural function and worked under the mentorship of Sara Burke, Ph.D., associate director of UF’s Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory, or CAM Center. Johnson published dozens of research papers and earned numerous awards, including a K99/R00 grant from the National Institute of Aging.

In 2020, Johnson accepted a position as an assistant professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago.

SJ 2
Dr. Sarah Johnson at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.

During her time at UF, Johnson took a leadership role mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, and her intellect, fearlessness, tenacity, kindness and generosity left a lasting impact on UF’s neuroscience community.

In her honor, the CAM Center and UF’s McKnight Brain Institute, or MBI, are co-sponsoring a named annual award that will recognize one postdoctoral fellow and one assistant professor who exemplify Johnson’s passion for research and dedication to mentorship.

“One of MBI’s roles in our UF community is to educate the next generation of neuroscientists. SJ embodied that mission with passion,” said Jada Lewis, Ph.D., deputy director of the MBI. “We are saddened to have lost her within our community and for the loss of the next generation of neuroscientists who won’t benefit from her wisdom and dedication. To honor her legacy, we have partnered with CAM to recognize a postdoc and an assistant professor who will carry on SJ’s commitment to mentorship in neuroscience.”

**If you would like to share your memories or photos of SJ, please submit them here and we will incorporate them into this post.

Read SJ’s obituary and learn about a memorial fund created in her honor.


SJ was always teaching and mentoring everyone around her in more ways than one. She helped me develop into a better scientist, but it was more than that. She helped me develop into a better mentor, leader, friend and colleague. She helped me learn the ins and outs of academic conferences, navigating professional relationships and learning how to deal with the hardships that come along with academia. She showed me how to be strong and persevere in the face of hardship, and how to stick together in good times, bad times and completely horrendous times. Her influence on me will be as long lasting as it was great.
SJ was a part of my family. My kids and dogs adored her. Aside from being a dear friend, she was wonderful to do science with. She took copious notes and would text constantly with updates of how her animals were performing. She had a keen eye for observing behavior, and what others would miss - she would turn into a discovery. She always cited every relevant paper in her writing, and was a true scholar in this regard. She helped me get my lab off the ground, and while I was officially her mentor, I truly believe I learned more from SJ than she did from me.
Doctor Johnson's assistant professor office placard
"I had the great pleasure and honor of serving as Sarah’s PhD supervisor, and watching her career unfold in the years since. It always struck me that all of the outstanding qualities that Sarah brought to her science were really just the essence of who she was, and how she lived her life. Fierce determination, passion, unwavering optimism, and hope. Sarah had a brilliant mind, a beautiful spirit, and, no doubt, touched countless lives; certainly she touched mine. I can think of no more fitting a way to honor her memory than with an award for excellence in mentoring, something she valued greatly and executed masterfully. I celebrate her life, with gratitude."
"The entire community at RFUMS is deeply saddened by the loss of Sarah; and her new friends and colleagues in the neurodegeneration center are especially feeling this loss. We saw immediately her intellect, drive, and most importantly, a kind human being that radiated something special. We were eager to get to know her better, and to share her love of neuroscience. She is deeply missed, and will not be forgotten." - Grace Stutzmann, Department chair and colleagues at Rosalind Franklin University
"I'm deeply saddened to hear this news. I got to know Sarah more closely in recent years through the Canadian Retinoblastoma Research Advisory Board. We shared a love of rats-- or at least, she patiently would look at my photos and listen to my stories about my family's pet rats. I invited Sarah to give a talk at York about 18 months ago. It was clear that the work that she was doing was very innovative and methodically executed. Moreover, Sarah was a very engaging speaker. I recall her excitement about her touch screen set-up at one of the CRRAB meetings, years ago. Sarah was very thoughtful and wise, someone whom I truly respected. I will miss her." written by Jennifer Steeves, P-H-D
Mandy Wintink, friend and mentor said: "I have known Sarah since she was a 3rd-year, very keen, undergraduate student. She was eager to begin her research career and I was a doctoral student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. I began as a mentor to Sarah but over the years and throughout her graduate training in Toronto our relationship grew into a wonderful friendship, inclusive of many annual trips to the Society for Neuroscience and various other conferences. Sarah was an exceptional thinker and scientist with a keen sense of behavioral observation. She loved science and gave so much to her career and to the people she mentored. She had so much more to give and her loss spans far and wise within the scientific community and beyond. Her memory will live on in the many people whose lives and minds she touched. The awards in her name are an excellent representation of her life that keeps on giving."
Sarah Johnson
(From left) Drs. Mindy Wintink and Sarah Johnson