Oceanographer casts wide net for young talent

Portrait of Ashanti Johnson (Courtesy of Ashanti Johnson)
Ashanti Johnson (Courtesy photo)

As the first African American to earn a degree in marine science from Texas A&M University-Galveston, where she also served as student government president, Ashanti Johnson began her career knowing a thing or two about breaking barriers.

That’s why, as she went on to earn a doctorate and become a chemical oceanographer, she always found time to help students coming along behind her.

Johnson credits her scientific success partly to explorer Jacques Cousteau, whose films sparked her love for the ocean. As a child, she worked on ocean-related projects whenever she could in school. While focusing on a teaching career — today she is an associate professor at Mercer University in Georgia — she has continued to publish on aquatic radiogeochemistry.

At the same time, as she works in a field where there are few African-American women, she is inspired to prepare students from diverse backgrounds for their own careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“The principle of ‘lift as we climb’ was instilled in me by my parents,” she says.

Helping others set goals

Johnson designs initiatives that help minority students identify their areas of interest, with an eye toward career development in science and technology. “I tell them, ‘let’s hear what your goal is, and let’s figure out how to get you there,’” she says.

In 2003, NASA approached Johnson and asked her to start a mentoring program that eventually became the Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success in Earth System Science (MS PHD’S). One enrollee is a Native American undergraduate student who had never left her tribe’s reservation until she was accepted into the program, said Johnson. Since then, the student “has been attending conferences and interning … She’s blossomed.”

Johnson is also co-founder of Sportin’ the Grades, a non-profit organization that helps student-athletes with their academics. “We encourage students to have two plans: sports AND academics,” Johnson says. In doing so, the organization helps them lay the foundations for careers.

Over the years, Johnson has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2010. But her greatest satisfaction, she says, is helping her students see “that it’s possible for them to realize their dreams” — just as she did.