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Getting To Know… Maria Johnson

A Wakefield High science teacher used to work for the labs that made the first cloned sheep.

A media firestorm ensued when, in 1996, Dolly the sheep, was brought into the world to become the first ever cloned animal.

But her passing received significantly less publicity.

The world said "Goodbye Dolly!" on Feb. 14, 2003 when the brave, pioneering sheep was euthanized at the age of six due to progressive lung disease.

In the mid-90s, Maria Johnson found herself in the middle of the cloning frenzy as an employee of PPL Therapeutics, the British lab that was responsible for the ewe breakthrough.

Johnson has since moved on from her replicating heydays and now teaches biology and chemistry at Wakefield High School in Arlington.

In an e-mail interview, she discussed her reasons for leaving PPL, her eclectic taste in films, and, of course, the cloned wonder that was.

Arlington Connection: Do you live in Arlington?

Maria Johnson: I lived in Arlington for four years, but for the last five, I have been in Annandale.

AC: How did you come to work for PPL Therapeutics?

MJ: I applied for a job at the corporate research center at Virginia Tech at the interview with another scientist I met, Will Eyestone. We clicked from moment one and went on to make the most successful transgenic lab in the world at that time.

AC: Did you ever meet Dolly the sheep? What was she like? Could you tell that she was cloned or was she just like a normal sheep?

MJ: No. Her DNA was shorter than normal. That is, the cells used to clone her had gone through several divisions in culture.

AC: Nobody ever talks about the sheep that Dolly was cloned from. What ever happened to that sheep? Did it have a name? Did it ever come in contact with Dolly? If so, what was that like?

MJ: Dolly was cloned from mammary tissue from an unnamed ewe.

AC: I heard Dolly is dead. Is that true?

MJ: She was put down due to a lung disease at the age of 6 (typical sheep live to 12). She also had arthritis (typical of an older sheep). Conclusions from these facts are still being debated today.

AC: How did you go from working at PPL to becoming a teacher at Wakefield? Is this something that you've always wanted to do?

MJ: I followed a boyfriend to [Northern Virginia] (now my husband). I did some substitute work and was asked to stay by Arlington on my third assignment. I really thought it would be temporary until I found another research pharmaceutical project I wanted to work on. PPL was nice enough to keep me as a consultant to supplement my monies for a while. However, I found I love the classroom! Students really are interested in their world and what is going on in them — more so than what is in textbooks. I try to mix in a little of both.

AC: What is your favorite part of Arlington? Is there any place that you like to go that not too many people know about?

MJ: All the parks! And bike trails!

AC: What is your favorite restaurant in Arlington?

MJ: There is a Thai place on Columbia Pike, a couple blocks from the old Bob and Edith’s — part of that hotel — don't know the name but it is high on the list for me.

AC: What is your favorite movie?

MJ: An Inconvenient Truth — it has gotten the kids thinking about the world, science, data, politics, etc. I also loved Finding Nemo — the message to "just keep swimming" has so many applications for me and my students.

AC: What was your first job? How did it prepare you, if at all, for being a scientist?

MJ: Post-college [I was a] medical technologist for the Virginia Tech Infirmary. I worked my way through school bartending, life guarding, waiting tables etc.

AC: Who makes up your family?

MJ: I have two children, Izak Johnson, 5, and Zoe Johnson, 3. Oh, and that boyfriend I moved for is now my husband — Brian Johnson, an economist.

AC: What do you like best about being a teacher in Arlington?

MJ: The students and staff. I work with some really bright and exciting people and the students make every day different, challenging and fun! I get frustrated sometimes but that is where the staff at Wakefield is amazing, always supportive and really fun to work with.