Skip to main content

Profiles in Brain Science: Margaret Johnson, MD

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Caring for patients with brain cancer requires depth and breadth of expertise, including understanding how cancer grows and spreads in the brain, knowledge of the latest surgical techniques used to treat and remove tumors, and the ability to provide compassionate care and answer honest, difficult questions involving life and death. The work of Margaret “Maggie” Johnson, MD, straddles these disciplines. In our latest “Profiles in Brain Science” interview, Johnson talks about how she developed these interests, her work seeing patients in the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, and what she does in her few moments of spare time outside of Duke.

What are your responsibilities at Duke? What does a typical day for you look like?
I work at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center as a neuro-oncologist. I mostly see patients in clinic 3-1 in the cancer center.

Your work touches on the disciplines (and Departments) of neurology, neurosurgery, and palliative care. How did you first get interested in this area of study?
It took me a while to find my calling as a neuro-oncologist. In medical school I thought I would be a geriatrician. Then, I discovered the brain. I realized that if I could learn about the brain every day for the rest of my life I would be happy. However, the intricacies of the brain were not enough, my relationships with patients became even more important as I went through training in neurology. This led me to palliative care and neuro-oncology and I can’t imagine doing anything else within the field of medicine.

Your work also involves both cutting-edge research and technology as well “low tech” but equally important provision of compassionate, comfort-based care. How do these two areas overlap and complement each other?
I think that a patient’s treatment, whether that be a “cutting-edge” phase I clinical trial or deciding to go on hospice, should be a reflection of the patient’s goals and values. It’s my job to be their guide, regardless.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

My wonderful patients and their equally wonderful caregivers.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

The loss: making strong bonds with patients and families and then losing those patients to brain cancer.

In addition to your MD and fellowship training, you have a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University. What did you focus on for that study? How does that degree inform your current work?
An MPH provides a core education in epidemiology and biostatistics. So every time I sit down to write a scientific paper or develop a research idea, these core skills help. I also have a great appreciation for the work our biostatisticians do day in and day out.

What other passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
Ha! I have two kids under five years old. You may very occasionally see me at the YMCA or the SilverSpot movie theater in Chapel Hill.

Johnson family
Johnson (center), with her husband, mother, aunt, and two children, pose at last year's "Angels Among Us" walk/race.

To learn more about Dr. Johnson and her work, watch her DukeHealth video here.