When Amy Wagoner Johnson was working on her Ph.D. in materials science nearly two decades ago, she wouldn’t have guessed that eventually she would play an important role in a college of medicine—her dissertation was about metal matrix composites to be used for tank armor. Now she leads an Applied Biomaterials and Biomechanics Lab at the University of Illinois and is the first Head of the Department of Biomedical and Translational Sciences at Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

The pivotal moment in Wagoner Johnson’s career came as she was wrapping up her dissertation and happened to see a presentation about using a high-resolution CT scan to look at bone deterioration. 

“I was fascinated,” said Wagoner Johnson. “I saw that I could think about materials science and mechanics in the context of human health, which was much more appealing to me than tank armor. The possibility of making a difference for people and thinking about tissue as a material was very motivating. I knew it was what I wanted to do.” 

Soon after, Wagoner Johnson joined MechSE at the University of Illinois (now Grainger) College of Engineering as a Research Assistant Professor, which allowed her to dive into her new research focus. She also established her lab, which does research with applications that include bone replacement and repair and preterm birth. In 2005, Wagoner Johnson became an Assistant Professor in MechSE, where she is now a full professor. 

When Wagoner Johnson was asked by Carle Illinois in 2017 to be the interim course director for the Obstetrics block, she was eager to play a role in the world’s first engineering-based college of medicine. After serving Carle Illinois in several capacities for three years, Wagoner Johnson was recently appointed to the new faculty head role.  

Judith Rowen, MD, the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Carle Illinois, praised Wagoner Johnson’s “deep engagement” with the College from the start—even before the inaugural class of students arrived in 2018. In addition to serving on the educational facilitators search committee, the admissions committee, and as a Pod Mentor for students, she is also the engineering course director for the Obstetrics block and will be an engineering partner as Phase 2 begins in March for second-year students. 

“Professor Wagoner Johnson has been deeply engaged with the College the entire time I have been here,” said Rowen. “She has a heart for students and also cares for the faculty in her charge, and is dedicated to the mission and values of Carle Illinois. Students, faculty and staff will all find her to be an active, perceptive administrator for the College.”

Wagoner Johnson said she is looking forward to enhancing interdisciplinary collaboration, which is at the heart of Carle Illinois’ mission. While collaboration isn’t always easy, she added, it’s incredibly valuable. 

“Interdisciplinary collaboration of any kind presents challenges, but that’s part of the innovation process—putting together people who don’t know each other and come from very different disciplines,” she said. “If it was easy, more people would be doing it. Carle Illinois is incredibly unique and in a position to be successful because of the culture of collaboration and innovation at Illinois. It would not be possible if people were hesitant to step outside the box.” 

Building a strong, meaningful faculty culture at Carle Illinois is also one of Wagoner Johnson’s goals. And it’s a noteworthy one—the college has over 400 clinical and academic faculty from 10 colleges and divisions at the University of Illinois. 

“I hope that in this position I will help foster faculty engagement, community and accountability,” she said. “I want to engage faculty in meaningful ways that benefit the students, faculty, and the College in general. I expect this type of engagement will lead to even more teaching and research collaborations, and medical innovation on campus.”