As an African-American girl growing up in Dallas, Texas, Ashanti Johnson wanted to be like a famous French man: Jacques Cousteau.
“My first exposure [to oceanography] was watching him on TV,” says Johnson, 39. “The ocean for me represented the unknown… I think because it was so vast and diverse.”
But as she pursued an education in oceanography, Johnson realized her field of study wasn’t so diverse. When she enrolled at Texas A & M University at Galveston, there were only eight black people at the university known for marine studies. Johnson became the first African-American to receive a degree in marine science. The view wasn’t much different at Texas A & M’s main campus, where she became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in oceanography.
“To some extent, my community [of scientists] has not done the greatest job in letting the public know about career opportunities in earth system sciences. If you’re smart, you’re told you can be a doctor or lawyer… but people don’t know what a geologist or oceanographer does,” says Johnson.
After becoming an assistant professor of chemical oceanography at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science in 2003, Johnson created the Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success in Earth System Science initiative. Since its inception, MS PHDS has helped more than 175 minority college students majoring in earth system science find jobs and network with other minority scientists. Johnson says the program also gives minority students who often feel isolated in their respective majors, a much-needed support system.
“They call it the MS PHDS family. So once you’re adopted into it, you’re part of the family for life,” says Johnson.
Johnson’s efforts were even recognized by President Barack Obama. In January, she was honored with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
Johnson says she’s just getting started. Her hope is to make MS PHDS a model program for other majors like math and physics. Perhaps making even more fields where minorities are underrepresented, as colorful as the deep, blue sea.