The Kenneth M. Johnson Pharmacology/Toxicology Graduate Program Endowment Fund 

Dr. Kenneth M. Johnson, Professor Emeritus

Kenneth JohnsonKenneth Maurice Johnson, Jr. is a native of Houston, Texas who is known for his contributions to the behavioral and biochemical mechanisms of cannabinoids, cocaine, and particularly phencyclidine (PCP). After earning his B.S. in biology and teaching high school physical science for two years, he started his graduate studies in the Department of Biophysical Sciences at the University of Houston in 1969 and finished his Ph.D. work in 1974. His early work on cannabinoids led to his work on “angel dust” (phencyclidine, or PCP) and its interaction with the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptor subtype, for which he is best known. This work, carried out at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, as well as his work on cocaine analogs, has been cited over 7500 times, making him one of most cited pharmacologists in the world. During his tenure at UTMB he served as the Graduate Program Director, in Pharmacology & Toxicology (PHTO) in three terms (1985-1989, 1996-1999, and 2002-2016). During this time, 58 students completed the Ph.D. program. Fourteen graduate students received the Ph.D. under Dr. Johnson’s tutelage, and twelve postdoctoral fellows received additional training in his laboratory.


Purpose: The funds generated from The Kenneth M. Johnson Pharmacology/Toxicology Graduate Program Endowment Fund will be utilized to advance the Pharmacology/Toxicology graduate program, as determined by the Pharmacology/Toxicology Program Director, in conjunction with graduate faculty.

Donors:Pharmacology & Toxicology Faculty, staff, students & Alumni


Kenneth Johnson was born December 7, 1944 in Houston, TX. He is one of three children. Johnson and his wife have two grown sons. He lives in Galveston, TX.Kenneth Johnson
Dr. Johnson attended Stephen F. Austin University from 1963-1967, graduating with a B.S. in biology and a minor in chemistry. He then taught physical science in the Houston ISD for two years before enrolling in the graduate program in biophysical sciences at the University of Houston in 1969. After studying the hydrodynamic sedimentation properties of closed and nicked circular DNA under high g forces at UH, he met Dr. Marlyne Kilbey from the Department of Psychology who was studying the effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) on aggressive behavior in mice. This meeting completely changed his research interests. As a result, he continued his studies with Drs. Kilbey and Beng T. Ho at the Texas Research Institute of Mental Sciences (TRIMS) from neurochemical and behavioral perspectives and earned his Ph.D. in 1974.
He then accepted a postdoctoral fellow with Drs. Wm. L. Dewey and Louis Harris at the Medical College of Virginia (MCV, now merged with Virginia Commonwealth University, or VCU), where he continued his work on the behavioral and neuropharmacological effects of cannabinoids in mice (1975-1977). Following his two and one-half years of training in pharmacology, he moved back to Texas where he began his independent career as an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX.
His early work at UTMB was generally focused on mechanisms of uptake and release of neurotransmitters and how drugs of abuse, particularly cocaine and phencyclidine affected these processes. A related area of research involved understanding the mechanisms by which nitric oxide impacted these processes. This was followed by studies on the mechanisms by which glutamate analogs (particularly N-methyl-D-aspartate, NMDA) as well as glycine and serine altered neurotransmitter release through stimulation of both ionotropic and metabotropic transmitter receptors.
Dr. Johnson is most well-known for his work on the molecular, cellular and behavioral effects of phencyclidine (PCP, “angel dust”) in young postnatal rats. This work focused largely on PCP’s interactions with the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptor subtype and has been the cornerstone of his research career. Following several studies on the behavioral effects of PCP in adult rats, he became interested the hypothesis that young, immature animals could be particularly vulnerable to the effects of drugs like cocaine, and particularly, PCP. This work was largely carried out in perinatal rats that were treated with PCP on postnatal (PN) days 7, 9, and 11. This treatment regimen caused the apoptotic, caspase-3-dependent death of a number of neurons (especially parvalbumin containing neurons) in the prefrontal cortex, thalamus, hippocampus, subiculum and striatum. This was associated with significant schizophrenia-like behavioral changes later in life such as behavioral sensitization to a small dose of PCP (on PN42), a loss of pre-pulse inhibition of acoustic startle on PN24-25, as well as a deficit in acquisition of delayed spatial alternation task (thought to be dependent on short-term working memory and known to be deficient in schizophrenia). The mechanism by which PCP caused neuronal death was shown to involve both the PI-3 kinase/Akt/GSK-3β and MEK/ERK pathways, which could be ameliorated by lithium and BDNF (in vitro). Later, we were able to demonstrate that activation of dopamine D1 receptors could compensate for the effect of PCP by activating both PKA, which increased NR1 trafficking to the synapse, as well as FYN kinases, which in turn activated Src kinases that enhanced NR2B trafficking into the synapse. These effects increased synaptic strength and cell survival through the PI3K/Akt/GSK-3B cell survival pathway, suggesting that D1 receptor activation could be useful in treating psychoses such as schizophrenia which is now most typically treated with D2 receptor antagonists.
Dr. Johnson has also been honored for his teaching efforts with the Dr. Leon Bromberg Professor for Excellence in Teaching, 2003-2005 and the Mary and J. Palmer Saunders Professorship for Excellence in Teaching, 2009-2011. Recently, upon his retirement, he was awarded a lectureship in the name of Dr. Chauncey Leake, one of the early pioneers in the field of pharmacology.eated with D2 receptor antagonists.

2020 Endowment Recipients

 Timothy BaumgartnerTimothy-Baumgartner

Kenneth M. Johnson Pharmacology Excellence Scholarship




Tim earned his B.S. in Biochemistry from Baylor University in May of 2020. At Baylor, he worked as an undergraduate researcher with Dr. Mary Lynn Trawick. Following his graduation, Tim joined the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Program at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He is currently in his first semester of the BBSC and in the process of seeking a mentor for his dissertation work. 

Research Highlight:
Tim’s undergraduate research involved the investigation of the biological and biochemical effects of an array of anti-mitotic tubulin-binding compounds. The dynamic polymerization of tubulin into microtubules is essential for cellular proliferation, migration and invasion. The therapeutic application of compounds that target tubulin and inhibit its ability to polymerize represents a well-established area of focus for new anticancer agents in terms of suppressing the growth and proliferation of tumors. Two compounds of interest, OXi8006 and KGP18, target β-tubulin at the colchicine binding site and have exhibited cytotoxic effects on cancer cells. The high potency and dual mechanism of action make them promising lead compounds for prodrug development, and Tim’s research focused on screening these compounds along with several derivatives on the A549 lung cancer cell line. 

Madison TannerMadison-Tanner

Best Pre-Candidacy Student Oral PresentationPharmacology & Toxicology Summer Symposium




Madison earned her B.S. in Biology with a minor in Chemistry from the University of Houston in 2018. She began pursuing her PhD with the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in 2019, where she joined Dr. Casey Wright’s laboratory.  She currently serves as Vice President of the Pharmacology and Toxicology Student Organization. In her free time, Madison enjoys playing with her dog, going to the beach, and doing yoga.

Research Highlight:
Mass production of acrolein, combined with its presence in cigarette smoke and e-cigarette aerosols has resulted in acrolein being identified as a chemical of interest by the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-terrorism Standards program. Acrolein has been shown to possess both immunosuppressive and carcinogenic effects, yet these mechanisms of toxicity have so far been poorly defined. Madison’s research is oriented towards uncovering how inhaled acrolein activates the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) signaling pathway in pulmonary macrophages so that medical countermeasures may be developed.

Amy CooperAmy Cooper

Best Candidacy Student Oral PresentationPharmacology & Toxicology Summer Symposium




Amy earned her B.S. in Forensic and Investigative Sciences from Texas A&M University in 2017. After graduating she joined the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate program at the University of Texas Medical Branch. She joined Dr. Casey Wright’s laboratory in 2018 and was awarded a predoctoral position on the NIEHS Environmental Toxicology T32 training program. Amy has been actively involved in leadership positions around campus. She has been the Secretary and Vice-President of the graduate student organization and is the current President of the Pharmacology and Toxicology Student Organization. Outside of science she enjoys cooking, reading, and listening to podcasts. 

Research Highlight: 
According to the World Health Organization, 4.2 million deaths occur every year as a result of exposure to fine particulate matter, and 23% of all estimated global deaths are linked to the environment. The immune system plays a key role in responding to foreign antigens and protect the body from detrimental effects during toxicant exposure. Amy’s dissertation work will focus on investigating the regulatory paradigm of two alternatively spliced isoforms of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator (ARNT) in controlling the signaling of the crucial transcription factor involved in mediating toxicant exposure, the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) in the immune system. She believes this work will provide critical information into AhR-ARNT signaling in the immune system for the goal of targeting ARNT for therapeutic intervention of autoimmune diseases.